GeekDad Wayback Machine: The Physics of Bowling

Geek Culture

One year ago today, you were reading this on GeekDad, by me:

Everyone knows billiards as the default example for teaching classical dynamics, but is ten-pin bowling a better choice, especially for getting kids interested?




My wife (who is a primary school teacher) and I are always on the lookout for teachable moments with our kids: those hiccups in time where a situation aligns with a child’s attention and interest to provide the perfect opportunity for learning (the term itself is a buzzword, painfully showing that the realm of education is almost as bad as business when it comes to trendy names for simple concepts).  With both our boys becoming regular league bowlers, we’ve found a variety of teachable moments in the ancient game opening up significant opportunity to discuss the wonders of the physical world from the very simple to the very complex.


More after the break…

To begin, there are the simple dynamics of the ball and the pins, angles of impact and deflection.  When you start out bowling with house balls (which are solid-cast plastic), the correlation to the billiards examples we all learned in basic science are very clear: roll the ball straight, hit the pocket at a specific angle with enough force, and the resulting succession of impacts will knock everything down.


That’s an excellent place to start, but as your kids’ aptitudes for both the game and the science matures, so do the lessons the game has to offer.  When they’re ready to graduate from house balls to owning "professional" equipment, suddenly materials science and some higher-level dynamics get thrown into the mix.  For example, the better balls you can buy are not solid plastic, but have specialized, shaped-cores to help get the spin and hook needed to really knock those pins flying.


In fact, most of these higher-grade bowling balls come with guidelines as to how to drill the finger-holes to achieve different results in play, based upon what kind of bowler you are.

Then there’s lane conditions, and the mathematics of the curves to be used to deliver the ball to the pin pocket.  Did you know that the lanes are oiled up to about 10 feet from the pins, and then are dry the rest of the way?  That’s how the pros achieve those astounding, last-minute break that tear into the pins.


As with any family activity, the best part of going bowling is getting to spend quality time together, enjoying a shared interest, but when handled well, the opportunity for geeky education is vast.  I encourage all of you Geekdads out there to keep looking for those teachable moments in everyday activities; there’s a world of them out there!

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