Campus & Community

Physics and … basketball?

3 min read

Two worlds collide at Leverett House

At first glance, physics and basketball seem worlds apart, but at Harvard they’re connected in more ways than one. Take Physics Night at Leverett House, for example, and an intrasquad basketball game at the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC) — two activities that develop both mind and body, nurturing the individual and the community simultaneously.

Physics comes into play in basketball whenever a player jumps in the air to shoot or rebound. What enthusiasts call “hang time” — when a player appears frozen at the peak of his leap — is the result of projectile motion.

When a player springs upward, the strength of the vertical velocity thrust determines the time he spends airborne. There’s also a horizontal element of velocity, but that remains constant throughout the jump, since gravity doesn’t play a role.

Howard Georgi, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, said Physics Night started in 1998 when three things coincided: He became master of Leverett; the dining halls were opened for study during off hours; and problem sets in several physics classes were due on Thursday mornings. The confluence meant that many students began working long into Wednesday nights, and Georgi was there to help.

Soon, professors started sending their teaching fellows to Physics Nights, and even came themselves. The advent of Brain Break, during which students study late with food near at hand, reinforced the practice. Now, Physics Night is an institution that fills the dining hall with laptops and animated dialogue about physics — except, of course, when the talk is on the court at the MAC, where Leverett basketball players talk of “give-and-go” or “cutting to the basket” as they take a study break.

At Leverett House Physics Night, students gather around tables in the dining room to work on physics projects.
Leverett House basketball Team C members choose sides for an intrasquad game after another House failed to show up for their scheduled contest.
Aaron Markowitz ’16 (from left), George Torres ’16, and Roman Berens ’16 focus on their physics work.
Cyndia Yu sports a sweatshirt decorated with Schrödinger’s cat, a thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935.
Players vying for the ball get a leg up on the action.
House Master Howard Georgi offers some advice to Paul Wei ’15 (center) and Leo Guttmann ’15 (right).
Leverett’s mascot bunnies adorn this player’s T-shirt.
What in the world? An up-close view of physics homework.
Basketball! It’s science in gym clothes!
Ellen Robo ’16 (left) confers with fellow student Natalie Janzow ’16.
Leverett House basketball Team C. Front row: Resident Dean Lauren Brandt (from left), Cynthia Tassopoulos, Emma Keller, Katelyn Smith, and Joseph McGing. Back row: David Williams (from left), Manny Mendoza, Andrew Garbarino, Robert Worley, Chris Lupien, Matthew Megan, and Kai Fei.
The Leverett House dining room is packed with inquiring minds. Physics! Who’da thunk it?