Q&A: Bill Nye the Science Guy explains the science behind sports phenomena

Bill Nye "the science guy" describes the science of running including "the runners high."

Ever wonder how a pitcher makes a baseball break or why the Denver Nuggets‘ greatest advantage is their proximity to sea level?

I’ve wondered about such things since I was a kid. Which is why I enlisted every kid’s favourite scientist, Bill Nye the Science Guy, to break down a few burning sports-science questions.

A year after coming north for the Hot Docs film festival, Nye was in Toronto again recently to speak to university students and address members of the Nike run club about the proverbial “runner’s high.” At Nike’s pop-up, “The Dispensary” promoting the Epic React running shoe, Nye explained to the assembled crowd the science behind the runner’s high.

“When you feel a runner’s high, it’s related to dopamine,” said Nye. Nye, who runs 10 kilometres a day and cycles explained, “there are different molecules, called phenylethylamine,” referring to the organic compound the human brain creates to both stimulate and regulate mood, explaining how physical activity is akin to recreational drug use.

When I got some time with the “Bill Nye Saves the World” Netflix star I took the chance to pepper him with questions about the science behind common sports themes. His most intriguing responses are below.

SN: Is getting a “second wind” really a thing?

Nye: Oh yes, absolutely.

SN: How so?

Nye: To me it is. You’ll get a stitch, you’ll get a cramp and after a little bit that will wash away. The lactate that you create will wash away and then you feel good again. In bicycling you call it a rough patch. You feel like hell for a little while and then you back off a little and you recharge.

SN: Denver sports teams historically have had a huge home advantage. Why do visiting teams struggle playing at altitude?

Nye: There are fewer molecules of oxygen in each volume of lung. What generally happens to people who live at altitude is they get more red blood cells. Why don’t we all have more red blood cells? Because they clog things up. It’s a balance. With less oxygen your muscles can’t work as fast or as strongly. So, it slows you down.

Have you ever been at altitude and had no wind? No oomph?

SN: I have no wind no matter what elevation.

Nye: Well you’ll have even less at altitude. That’s why if the Olympics are at high altitude athletes get there a month early to acclimate. When I go to Denver I feel like taking a nap for the first few days. And then you get used to it. You develop more red blood cells. People have tried training at altitude and then coming down low and having more blood cells but eventually the body balances out the right number of blood cells. The big thing is your heart. The heart is a muscle that relies on oxygen so you can only go as fast as your heart can pump. And the heart can only pump as fast as you can get oxygen to it.

SN: Teams are smarter around studying the impact of travel on their athletes. How does flying negatively impact performance?

Nye: If you go in an airplane we talk all the time about pressure altitude. The airplane is like a balloon. Because of the fuselage of the airplane we make it as pressurized as it needs to be comfortable. But older planes especially don’t hold as high a pressure because that was the state of the art back then. If you made an airplane hold sea-level pressure, which you have to figure is coming in the next few decades, it will have to be much stronger with much more material to make it heavier. So, when you get on most jet airplanes and fly around for a few hours you’re in an environment with less oxygen. I’m so old I remember when people would smoke on airplanes. That was a thing. “Gear up, light up” is when pilots would light a cigarette immediately when they take off. That can’t be good for your oxygen uptake.

SN: What is the science behind a curveball?

Nye: Have you ever played ping pong? It’s not that hard to curve a ping-pong ball. Most people can do it with their fingers.

Whenever you have a fluid. Air is a fluid. It sticks to the surface. If you don’t believe me get a glass of water and spin it on the tabletop and you’ll see the water start to spin because it sticks to the wall of the glass. Air sticks to the baseball. So, the faster the air molecule is moving over the surface the less tendency it has to stick.

In fact, the reason people built tall sailing ships is to get the sails as far away from the sea surface as possible where the air is faster. So, on a baseball the air is sticking to one side and being scrapped off one side. So, the combination of spinning and moving makes the air stagnate on one side and speed up on the other. And the stagnant air pushes the ball toward the high-speed side.

There is a famous guy named Christy Mathewson in the 1800s who apparently could throw a curveball side arm. This is before high-speed photography and before cell phones. They set up three sticks and he was able to throw the ball to the left of the first stick, the right of the second stick and the left of the third stick. But a modern curveball, nobody can throw a curveball like that and be effective. It goes to slowly. A modern curveball almost always goes down. They put their fingers on top of the ball and give it topspin as well as throwing. The real trick is you don’t know it’s coming.

SN: What sports will most be impacted by science moving forward?

Nye: Bicycling I’m presuming will continue to get lighter and lighter. Skis I presume will get faster and faster. Are swimsuits going to get faster, I don’t know. I’d love to see them play with metal bats in baseball. The ball would go faster and farther. That is a sport that is constrained by the rules.

SN: How do you feel that modern day sports are now not just about physical dominance but scientific dominance?

Nye: Now you’re talking! I think it’s great. The reason these records keep getting broken is because of science. The science of swimsuits, the science of training. But this is why we love sports, so much of it is mental. So much of it is your focus and your willingness to train. Well to go with your natural ability it is the use of science that applies that focus and determination.

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