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Around Amherst, Mass., colleges run into colleges—the University of Massachusetts, Hampshire, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith—leaving little room for a real town. The population is incessantly changing, fresh ideas flowing through a setting that has a history of assisting clear thought, elegant patterns. Emily Dickinson wrote and is buried here, and Robert Frost's birches are still bending.
Working today in Amherst is a man who would hardly consider himself poetic, but Gideon Ariel has been a leading figure in taking the great raw minds of computers and bringing them to bear on movement. In so doing, he has for the first time let us see the line and meter of human motion. Sport can never be the same.
In the first place, it seems that we have been proceeding on a false assumption. We have believed that trained observers can discern the crucial elements of athletic performance, that coaches can see what their athletes are doing wrong. "The human eye cannot quantify human movement," says Gideon Ariel, ponderously, because he is a big man who threw the discus and shot for Israel in two Olympics, because he still struggles with his Hebrew accent after 14 years in this country, and because that sentence is the foundation of his revolutionary advance. "The important things in performance, the timing, the relative speeds of dozens of limb and body segments, the changes in centers of gravity—these all must be measured, weighed, compared to be of any use."
Ariel is a natural teacher, reaching always for images so vivid the dumbfounded or skeptical will be forced to see. "Compare coaches with bridge engineers," he says. "Suppose an engineer finishes the bridge and says, 'Wait, remove that beam.' You ask why, and he says, 'I took a survey of 100 drivers, and 75 said it looks better without the beam.' That is how coaches coach. What looks best. But if an engineer did that there would be a lot of cars in the river. And he would find himself in the nuthouse, because he is required to measure the strength of his materials and design against the weight of his load."
People are subject to the same physical laws as bridges. Indeed, Leonardo da Vinci believed mechanical science the noblest, "seeing that by means of it, all animated bodies that have movement perform all their actions." Isaac Newton described the laws of motion in 1700, but not as vibrantly as does Gideon Ariel. "It doesn't matter if you lift a cow, or throw a chair, or punch your girl friend. Everything is according to Newtonian physics."
The problem, until now, has not been that we haven't believed this; it has been that too many things happen too fast for us. The sheer complexity and velocity of a javelin thrower's movement in the final quarter second before release, for example, preclude comprehension of what is going on.
Technology helps. One of the earliest uses of photography was to settle the turn-of-the-century question of whether all four hooves of a galloping horse ever were off the ground at once (they are). In the 1930s, high-speed cameras provided slow-motion photography to offer a clearer view of the action. Dozens of limb and body parts accelerating and decelerating could be seen and measured and charted against one another. Patterns of successful athletes began to appear.
"The better the athlete, the more sophisticated his timing," says Ariel. "The one basic principle of all sports—hitting or kicking balls, punching, throwing, jumping, breaking karate bricks—is a coordinated summation of forces."
But so delicate are the relationships between an athlete's many moving parts that they cannot be assessed simply by looking at the slowest of motion pictures. A process of frame-by-frame, body segment-by-body segment analysis is necessary to make optimum use of cinematography, work that is painstaking, dreary and absurdly time-consuming. Gideon Ariel gave that work to the computer and suddenly the maddening complexity of human motion could be matched by the awesome memory and speed of the machine. Well, not quite suddenly. It took Ariel some 10,000 hours over seven years to create the programs that instruct his computers. Now he offers the sporting world a chance to lift itself from, as he puts it, "the dark ages, a witchcraft business where everything is made of thin air." Over those years, Ariel transformed himself as well, from a carefree discus thrower to a compelling, caprizant figure, half academy lecturer, half medicine-show barker, a character entirely appropriate to spark the gap, to complete the circuit between science and sport.