Football on Mars and other improbable research

Posted by mjs76 at Jun 29, 2011 12:05 PM |
The real value to students of seemingly esoteric projects lies in the publishing process.
Football on Mars and other improbable research

Not that sort of Mars...

There has been a flurry of interest this week in a paper by three of our undergraduates about the practicalities of playing Association Football on Mars, which was featured by Marc Abrahams in his Improbable Research column in the Guardian.

Calum James Meredith, David Boulderstone and Simon Clapton from our Department of Physics and Astronomy set out to examine how Martian conditions would affect ‘the beautiful game’; not just the reduced gravity but also the lack of atmosphere which would remove the ability of skilled players to curve the ball past the goalie.

Abrahams’ column also mentioned a few other papers by Leicester students, including an analysis of how global warming might be solved by moving the Earth further away from the sun and a Monty Python and the Holy Grail-inspired exploration of whether any migratory bird could feasibly carry a cocoanut from Africa to Britain.

All of which is very entertaining and – in terms of the physics presented – educational. But there is a serious point behind this research, which is published in the University’s own Journal of Physics Special Topics.


The journal forms a module in the final year of the four-year MPhys degree and is designed to give students an insight into the formal process of submission, peer review and publishing. Split into groups of three or four, the students are asked to come up with ideas for short papers of no more than two pages, properly presented with formulae, diagrams, references etc. The groups referee each other’s papers and the whole process is overseen by a student editorial board.

From this comes an annual journal and, though the subject matter may seem ephemeral, the ‘real world’ experience for our Physics students of going through the review/publishing process is invaluable. Plus, it must be stressed, all the physics and maths within the papers is accurate. The peer review process is designed to sift out ‘low quality’ papers with inaccuracies, mistakes or invalid conclusions. Not everything submitted to Physics Special Topics gets published.

In the Journal of Physics Special Topics we have tried to provide scope for creativity, for group work in a realistic context, for the opportunity to revise some basic physics and at the same time to give some flavour of how the research community operates.
Professor Derek Raine, Foreword to PST vol.9

The latest issue of Physics Special Topics is volume 9. Early editions were produced on paper, while this and the previous three volumes are all available online as collections of PDFs. This year however the students have got behind the journal in a big way and asked that it be formally published. You can buy a copy for your own bookshelf – or your institution’s library – for just six pounds from the Lulu print-on-demand service.

Marc Abrahams is, of course, one of the organisers of the world famous Ig Nobel Prizes for "research which makes people laugh and then think." Would it be too extravagant to think that one or more of the papers in Physics Special Topics - or even the journal itself - might get nominated for an Ig?

Highlights of Physics Special Topics Vol.9 No.1

Can an F1 car drive upside-down?

Glossop T, Jinks S, Hopton R. Phys Spec Top 9.1, 2010


The ‘wings’ on a racing car are designed the opposite way to aeroplane wings, pushing the car down to provide better traction. So if the car was on the roof of a tunnel, could the wings push it up enough to hold it there? Turns out this could work if the car is doing more than 112mph.

The Last Son of Krypton

Tilley F, Davis C, Hague P. Phys Spec Top 9.1, 2010

Superman gains his special powers from ‘the yellow Sun of Earth’ so, assuming he absorbs solar radiation with a similar efficiency to plant photosynthesis, through the exposed skin of his face and hands, it would take him 35 minutes to generate the energy he would need to bore a hole through 5cm steel with his heat-ray vision.

Gravitational Influence on the Pole Vault

Sinclair J, Attree N, Stock J, Rivers C. Phys Spec Top 9.1, 2010

Because the Earth is not perfectly spherical, gravity is slightly weaker at the Equator than at the Poles. Combined with the benefits of centripetal force, this would give an equatorial pole vaulter a 1% advantage over an Arctic one.

Thunderbirds are Go!

Coxon JC, Barker JF, Conlon TM. Phys Spec Top 9.1, 2010

International Rescue relies on secrecy which means that Thunderbird 5 should be invisible from Earth. Comparison with the International Space Station (which is visible when the Sun shines on it) shows that TB5 would need to have an impossibly low albedo (reflectivity) to remain undetected.

“Hang on a Minute Lads, I’ve got a Great Idea…”


Booth T, Ryan L, Karazhov D. Phys Spec Top 9.1, 2010

In The Italian Job, three Mini Coopers are used to steal $4,000,000 of gold, racing through the streets of Rome and, at one point, jumping between rooftops. However, the extra weight of the gold bullion would prevent the cars reaching the required velocity for the jump so the maximum that Michael Caine and friends could have stolen would have been $2,290,000 of gold.

Share this page: