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The Physics of Figure Skating

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This blog appears in the In-Depth Report Science at the Sochi Olympics

Figure skating is one of the most popular sports in the winter Olympics. In this exclusive Scientific American video, contributing editor Christie Nicholson takes you inside the sport, to explore the physics behind a figure skater’s spectacular moves. Along the way, she discovers her inner Kristi Yamaguchi.
 
Presented by Christie Nicholson
Filmed and edited by Eric R. Olson

 


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  1. 1. david463 2:38 pm 02/23/2010

    Terriffc. Lots of fun and great explanation of the physics.

    With a little more training, Christie can be in the Olympics in 4 years.

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  2. 2. DC Dame 2:38 pm 02/23/2010

    Christie Nicholson makes one misstep in this otherwise interesting piece. A skilled skater does not push back to go forward. Rather, except in very specific and exceptional situations, the skater’s pushing leg moves out to thee side, pushing off the inner edge of the pushing blade. One can see this motion in its extremest form in speed skating, but it is true in all skilled skating, both forward and back. The push appears to be from the back because the skater is moving forward. Nicholson does not mention to crucial importance of the blade’s edge in every stroke and its interaction with the shifts in the skater’s weight that control the skaters movements. The great skaters one sees at the Olympics are masters at controlling edges and exploiting weight shifts and posture, and the rest of us spend countless hours trying to learn these difficult and highly counterintuitive skills. Doing so at a high level takes an extremely high level of physical fitness. Nicholson is an enthusiastic but, it appears, not a highly trained skater, and an understanding of edges and their importance takes a long time and highly competent instruction. Still, except for that point, this an informative and enjoyable piece.

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  3. 3. jess2therescue 1:57 pm 02/24/2010

    Reporting while skating on ice…. i love it! What other hidden talents do you have, Mrs. Nicholson? Let’s see you land that triple jump.

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  4. 4. man27410 8:20 pm 02/25/2010

    She got the explanation about the friction on ice wrong. Ice (or water) is a very unusual substance in that it expands upon freezing. Very few other substances do this. So when ice is subjected to pressure (blade of the skate), it wants to change back into a liquid, thus providing the lubrication needed to reduce friction.

    This is also why ice floats. Because of the expansion, it is less dense than water. Good thing, too, because otherwise all our skating rinks would have to freeze from the bottom up. And frozen lakes would probably never thaw.

    And by the way, if it is cold enough, (like Pluto, say), you couldn’t ice skate because you couldn’t generate enough pressure to change it back into liquid water.

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