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BOOK REVIEW: Fight Like a Physicist by Jason Thalken

Fight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial ArtsFight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial Arts by Jason Thalken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

When I saw this book’s title, I imagined a bloodied and battered Poindexter in a bow-tie–a professorial type dying in a puddle of his own bodily fluids as he calculated the Bayesian probability of winning given that initial beating. After all, physics is a highly cerebral activity, and being cerebral in a fight is a certain path to a beat down. However, Thalken makes a good point with his explanation of the title (and the book’s theme.) He’s suggesting that one use tactics and techniques that are supported by evidence and rooted in a sound understanding of the science of combat—as opposed to mindlessly doing whatever your sensei tells you or–worse yet–just muddling through on a combination of instinct and ignorance. In short, be skeptical, but inquiring. It turns out that there is a time for a fighter to be cerebral, but it’s when they are making decisions about how to train.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part explains how classical mechanics can help one to be a better fighter. There are four chapters in this section that deal with center of mass and its crucial role in a fight, the differences between high momentum and high energy strikes and how each is achieved, differences in circular versus linear paths and where the advantage in each lies, and what simple machines (i.e. levers and wedges) can do for a fighter. This section is what one would expect from such a book. Unlike the second section, which deals largely with sport fighters, the advice on offer in the first section is as applicable to those involved in self-defense or other real world combative situations as it is to fighters in the ring.

The second section examines the issue of concussions and brain damage in some detail, including consideration of the degree to which gloves and headgear do—or don’t—make one safer. The reader gains great insight into the mechanics and neuroscience of a knockout. While the majority of the section offers advice for those engaged in combative sports, the last two chapters take a bit of a turn. The first of these two deals with the myths perpetuated by Hollywood—which, let’s face it, is the source of most people’s information on what combat is. Debunking the notion that a person who gets shot is always and everywhere instantly incapacitated is a central theme this chapter. The last chapter deals with the issue of pseudoscience in the martial arts, and the insanity of believing one can defeat an opponent with chi (also qi, or—in Japanese Romanization–ki) or mind power alone. These last two chapters seem like a turn from the main theme of the book, but they do stay under the umbrella of the martial arts through a scientific lens.

While this is a book about science, it’s readable even for an educated non-scientist. All the math is put in boxes that the reader can opt to skip, or to follow, depending upon his or her comfort level with equations. There is no complex jargon, nor any incomprehensible concepts. The physics is largely high school level Newtonian mechanics.

Diehard believers in the supernatural or pseudo-scientific conceptions of the universe should be warned that this isn’t the book for you unless you like your sacred cows flame-broiled. You won’t learn about chi (qi) in this book except to be reminded that it’s a make-believe concept.

I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in how science can be applied to the martial arts or human movement more generally. It’s short, readable, and offers some interesting food for thought.

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