is a fine invention When Gentlemen can see—But Microscopes are prudent In an
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
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."
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."
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.
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
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.