The Super Bowl is a nerd's paradise

Watching the Super Bowl last night felt in many ways like witnessing beefy protons in a particle accelerator.

Let me explain.

My layman's understanding of particle physics is only slightly more advanced than my layman's understanding of American football. Though I love the annual Super Bowl tradition, my role last night was mostly in appetizer-preparation and commercial commentary. Still, I watched the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals. I watched James Harrison's first-act interception, stood as he crossed the 50, screamed with my friends as he soared into the end-zone. Turning an interception at one end of the field into a touchdown at the other may be the greatest possible play in football. My sports knowledge could fit on a bookmark, but the math of this feat was unmistakable. 

Naturally this meant we would watch the achievement over and over again in slow motion. His shoulder touching the yellow turf; his neck bending; the rest of his meat crumbling around the scoring football. A second angle, a third. Harrison is stuck by the neck into the end-zone, like a bent flagpole. The ball is in--amazing, a success.

The deed left the 242lb (110kg) player exhausted, star-shaped and motionless with a mangled neck at the tip of the field. But who noticed? For the spectating crowds and scrutinising referees, he was frozen in replay, caught at a weird angle by high-definition cameras at the most important moment. The real Harrison (the one who thought, "Ow") was an afterthought.

TV football nowadays is a nerd's paradise. Every real-life play is followed by a laboratory-physics examination of bodies in space. Particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider (recently built but halted in operation) play a similar sort of game. Just replace the grown men with protons and witness a similar array of smashing collisions, all of them documented down to the nanosecond. Physicists play referee, deciphering the instant replays to unlock the secrets of the cosmos. 

But back to the game, which was nearly over but hard to call. As we polished off our last buffalo chicken wing, the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald carried the ball 64 yards to score, fast as a jackrabbit. It was a brilliant encore to Harrison's superhuman feat. I put a dollar on a Steelers comeback. And as the clock shed the first seconds of the final minute, Santonio Holmes tested the limit of the field's geometry, sticking an unbelievable catch. 

In the replay there is matter, gravity and trajectory, and the power to observe a collision with omnipotent (hi-def, slo-mo) eyes. The rules of time are removed. Well-paid beefy sports superstars become particles, the billiard balls of physics. Move the body forward, backward; grab a lower angle; zoom in on the feet, now the ball.

Santonio's body, frozen in space, won the game: a fully extended line making two points of contact with the corner of the field and the two corners of the ball. His shoes were bright yellow vectors poking into the grass. 

Like Harrison's, Holmes' body collapsed under a few Cardinals, but that moment wasn't important. The physics of collision were recorded and waiting for a call. Touchdown, 27 to 23, and I won a dollar.