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Intuitive Physics is Inside Everyone

What do you think of when you hear the word “physics”?  Does it conjure up a slew of equations on a chalkboard?  How about a tough university course you just had to pass?  I’ve been a physics professor at the University of Lynchburg for nearly two decades, and I happen to be one of the few people in the world who chose a career in physics because something else was too hard.  I grew up wanting to play professional baseball, but an inability to consistently hit the curveball sent me to my fallback career – physics.  I couldn’t shake the sports itch, though, because physics of sports is my chosen research area.

In my latest book, The Physics of Krav Maga, I take perhaps the first scientific look at one of the fastest-growing martial arts in the US.  Unlike karate, a system that employs elegant katas as part of its training regime, Krav Maga emphasizes more realistic fighting.  We get in close with our sparring partners.  We practice with sticks, knives, and guns.  Hostage situations and terrorist attacks are part of a Krav Maga student’s curriculum.  We begin training with a “whatever works” mentality that evolves into “nothing works” as we learn to fight attackers who possess serious skill.  “Evolves” is an appropriate verb because Krav Maga is not a static system.  If a new technique is introduced and proves to be ineffective, it’s discarded.  But if something new proves helpful in one’s self-defense or in one’s offensive counter-attacks, it’s integrated into Krav Maga.

I make connections in my book to biological evolution, a well-established fact about the world.  We humans have, for example, developed eyes that do wonders for allowing us to experience our environment.  But to work effectively, the fronts of our eyes can’t be covered, which means we are susceptible to eye damage from direct strikes to our eyes.  What happens if you get something in your eye or, worse, poked in your eye?  You feel pain, which is your body’s alarm system, screaming at you, “Get that object out of your eye if you want to keep seeing well!”  Krav Maga takes advantage of our evolutionary-developed vulnerabilities.  Eye jabs, ear smashes, throat jabs, groin hits, and other actions painful to imagine are part of what make Krav Maga so effective.  If you’re attacked by a muscular dude in an alley who has 50 pounds on you, a quick jab to his eye might give you the precious time needed to run to safety.

Maybe a little evolution from the field of biology doesn’t worry you, but what about physics?  I put “physics” in the title of my book, and it’s not there to scare anyone off from buying and reading it!  I take some of the potential trepidation away from readers by stating at the outset that there are no equations in my book.  As someone trained in theoretical physics, I love working with mathematics, but I was after something else with my book.  I stressed “intuitive physics” as I wrote about Krav Maga.  Even though you weren’t aware of it at the time, as you learned to walk, you developed some intuitive physics.  You figured out that stepping forward meant that you had a little help because you tend to fall forward after you’ve initiated a step.  I build on that simple idea when I discuss the importance of maintaining balance in fending off an attacker, and when I describe how to disrupt an attacker’s balance when offering a counter-attack.

The laws of physics put constraints on all that we do.  The same energy conservation law that limits how much energy may be obtained via a nuclear reaction is the same law that sets a ceiling on the distance off the ground a high jumper is capable of reaching.  Astrophysicists make use of angular momentum conservation in their study of galaxy formation in the same way I use that conservation law when analyzing the effectiveness of rotational techniques in Krav Maga.  It’s actually liberating to one’s mind to ponder how the laws of physics constrain us! 

In my new book, The Physics of Krav Maga, I build on the reader’s intuitive physics, offer some clarifying terminology for that intuition, and show how physics can help one gain a better understanding of Krav Maga.  But the beauty of physics is that once you’ve learned how to apply the concepts of physics to a gritty martial art like Krav Maga, you’ll start applying those concepts to so much more of the world around you.  I’ll be thrilled if a reader with no physics background finishes my book, and then a couple of years later while watching the Winter Olympics, sees a skater go into her final spin, and exclaims, “Hey, I know why she’s spinning faster as she pulls her arms in!”

Order The Physics of Krav Maga – published on November 19, 2019 – at the following link: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/physics-krav-maga

John Eric Goff is a professor of physics and the chair of the physics department at the University of Lynchburg. The author of The Physics of Krav Maga and Gold Medal Physics: The Science of Sports, he holds a black belt in karate and a purple belt in Krav Maga.