July 17, 2012 at 10:44 PM ET
The London Olympic Games don't start until next week, but if you're a science fan, the programming has already begun: Engineers, athletes and TV types have teamed up for a 10-part video series that delves into Olympic-size subjects ranging from biomechanics to split-second timers.
"Science of the Summer Olympics" is the latest collaboration involving the National Science Foundation, NBC Learn and NBC Olympics. (Like those other NBC units, NBCNews.com is owned by NBCUniversal.) The series builds upon earlier batches of educational videos that focused on the sports of the Winter Olympics as well as football and hockey.
This time around, engineering is squarely in the spotlight.
"The work of engineers not only affects Olympic sports, it also helps us perform ordinary activities in better ways," Thomas Peterson, NSF's assistant director for engineering, said in a news release. "This series will illustrate how engineers can impact both sports and society, and we hope it will inspire young people to pursue engineering."
Among the athletic stars of the videos are Usain Bolt, the world's fastest man; Oscar Pistorius, a Paralympian who will be competing for the first time against able-bodied runners in the Olympics; and swimmer Missy Franklin. One of coolest spots shows how the moves used by superheavyweight weightlifter Sarah Robles could be adapted to enhance a weightlifting robot's capabilities.
"I watch what she's doing, and it blows me away." said Brian Zenowich, a robotics engineer at Barrett Technology. To lift the huge weights in an Olympic-style snatch maneuver, Robles instinctively takes advantage of the barbell's momentum to flip her body from a pulling-up position to a pushing-up position.
"You're moving your body more than you're moving the bar," Robles explains in the video. Zenowich programmed his company's WAM Arm to do something similar, but with a 5-pound weight rather than a huge barbell. For now, Robles has nothing to fear from that particular robot, but the biomechanical tricks learned from athletes could conceivably lead to more humanlike dexterity on the part of future machines.
Lesson plans that capitalize on the videos will be made available via the NBC Learn website in August. In the meantime, check out these other resources for sports science:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.