Every four years, we watch. We marvel at badminton and wonder about the modern decathlon. With more than 300 gold medals awarded across 37 disciplines, our lives are suddenly much less productive. To aid in your immersion, we continue with our daily edition of "know your Olympic sport," by answering some and posing some questions about the science of Michael Phelps (and swimming).
Michael Phelps has the Swiss to thank for what was his seventh of eight gold medals. To spectators and swimmers alike, it appeared that Phelps fell just short of catching Serbian Milorad Cavic in the 100-meter butterfly. Even Phelps's mother held up two fingers, thinking her son had finished second. But technology provided by the notoriously neutral Swiss (a coincidence, we're sure), showed that the impressively long fingers of Phelps had touched the pool wall 0.01 seconds before the Serb -- the smallest time increment possible in swimming.
For the past 23 Olympics, Omega has served as the aforementioned timekeeper for the games. Omega's traditional expertise in watchmaking has been superseded by more sophisticated technology, exemplified by the electronic touchpad used for recording swimming finishes. Measuring three feet high, nearly eight feet wide and less than half an inch thick, the pad was introduced in Mexico City in 1968 in response to a controversial decision in 1960. Prior to that point, three timekeepers armed with stopwatches were assigned to each lane. Two-thirds of the pad is submerged in water, with a separate pad in each lane. The system reacts to the slightest touch, but won't trigger based on the water movement in the pool.
"The timing system says it all," said Phelps. "There hasn't been an error in that timing system that I've ever heard of. The only thing I can say is, I raced as hard as I could and swam my best, and the scoreboard said I got my hand on the wall first."
Cavic wasn't so sure.
"As we all know, technology isn't perfect. It's possible. Everything's possible. The hand is quicker than the eye. Too bad we didn't both finish at 50.58. I would have loved to share that gold medal."
The pads claim accuracy to 0.001 seconds, but they are only reported to 0.01. Omega notes that it's impossible for pools to ensure that individual lanes are each the exact same length, which is why times are rounded to the nearest 1/100th of a second. Ironically, the Serbians protested the initial result of the race, which was denied based on high-speed video footage considered conclusive. Forget the video; maybe a Serb should have taken a tape measure to that lane.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.