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A hockey exhibit's cold, hard facts

Yes, Newtonian laws are in play on the ice. 'The Science of Hockey' exhibit in Santa Ana takes a slap shot at explaining them.

March 28, 2009|Billy Witz

Imagine skating with the puck through the neutral zone and realizing a hulking defenseman with a bad attitude is drawing a bead on you. Instead of calculating what a collision might feel like -- let's see, force = mass x acceleration -- a more primal urge takes over: Look out!

Now, imagine sitting in science class as your teacher stands at the chalkboard and begins diagramming Newton's second law of motion. Instead of calculating where each step in the formula leads, a more primal urge takes over: Zzzzzz.

Sometimes the best way to arouse the mind, especially that of a middle school student, is by giving it visceral stimuli, which is the idea behind a new exhibit, "The Science of Hockey," which is scheduled to open Thursday at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana.

The exhibit marries the twin passions of Henry Samueli, an engineering professor who made his fortune developing computer software and spent some of it buying the Ducks. Samueli has donated $2 million of the $2.9 million that has gone into constructing the 3,000-square-foot permanent exhibit.

"We want to use sport to inspire children to think of the science in everything," said Janet Yamaguchi, the museum's vice president of education.

The exhibit attempts to find the science in almost every aspect of hockey, from feeling the weight of uniforms to absorbing the 360 degrees of sound a goalie hears to learning about the physical properties of ice.

Of course, the three most popular displays figure to be the most hands-on: trying to shoot a puck past goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, trying to skate with center Ryan Getzlaf and trying to stop one of winger Corey Perry's slap shots.

The three Ducks were hooked up with sensors and wires that monitored their movements, and then they were filmed extensively while shooting, skating and stopping shots on the ice. The results have been translated into life-size images that are projected onto a screen or wall.

Not that it's an exact science. During a recent tour, the shots that were fired by Perry, coming out of three spots in the wall, were easy enough for a sportswriter to turn away.

But these displays attempt to go beyond blown-up Wii games.

The "You Be the Shooter" display also explains the science of a slap shot, how kinetic energy is transferred from the body to the stick to the puck. "You Be the Goalie" is accompanied by a display that tests reaction times and explains how the brain processes what the eyes see.

A person's math skills, such as percentages and fractions, are tested while he's seated in the penalty box. Answer four questions correctly and the other team doesn't score a power-play goal -- perhaps the most plausible explanation of how George Parros, the Ducks' tough guy, might have earned an economics degree from Princeton.

There is also a re-creation of the Ducks' dressing room, complete with placards of some of Coach Randy Carlyle's motivational sayings, which are less likely to be greeted with a roll of the eyes by a teenager than a 10-year vet.

Ducks radio announcer Steve Carroll has made a contribution too, delivering play-by-play as if Caltech had reached the Stanley Cup finals.

"An unbalanced force sends the mass rink-wide to Bobby Ryan. He spins the mass 360 . . . and he scores! What a demonstration of Newton's first law by Bobby Ryan!"

Perry, who toured the exhibit Thursday with several teammates, said that for him the most practical application of science involves the density of the ice, which is explained in one display.

"If it's soft or if it's hard, you sharpen your skates differently," Perry said.

For example, the ice at the Honda Center is notoriously soft.

"You don't want the skates too sharp or they'll dig into the ice and you won't be quick," he said. "In Edmonton, it's really hard, so you want your skates as sharp as possible so you can really push off."

Perry said he wasn't much of a science whiz growing up, though he liked math. His favorite subject was hockey. If there had been a way to mesh the two, he said, that would have been cool.

"When something is fun to learn about, you're likely to pay more attention," Perry said, a notion you don't have to be Einstein to figure out.

--

billywitz@yahoo.com

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