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Field Theory

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A huge roar goes up from the 70,000 or so fans packed into the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium. Is it star quarterback Eric Crouch scrambling for another touchdown? An electrifying punt return by wingback Bobby Newcombe? Nope. Actually the big Cornhusker cheer is for the figure on the 17 ft. x 23 ft. Diamond Vision screen—a bow tie-sporting man of scholarly mien who has just finished expounding on, of all things, Newton’s Second Law of Mechanics. Meet Lincoln, Neb.’s most unlikely campus hero, physics professor Dr. Tim Gay.

Defying the laws of probability, the 47-year-old researcher (a specialist in the scattering of electrons by atomic and molecular targets) has become a fan favorite with his crowd-pleasing Football Physics videos, now in their second season at Huskers home games. In each of the 45-second clips, the 6’4″, 230-lb. academic, himself a former college tackle—he candidly describes his career on the notoriously inept Caltech squad as “sorely undistinguished”—employs humor, diagrams, footage from past Nebraska games and even the occasional player to demonstrate how such concepts as energy, momentum and torque work. During a discussion of the movement of sound in the stadium, illustrated with a clip of cheering Huskers partisans performing a wave, the pigskin prof observes, “Sound travels fast, but light travels faster—about 300,000 times faster…. Now the speed of Bobby Newcombe, of course, is in a class all by itself.”

Since his gig began, tapes of Gay’s segments have also been scoring in high schools across Nebraska. “At first I was a little nervous that it would turn the fans off,” confesses the Ohio-born father of two sons. “But I couldn’t resist the chance to talk about my favorite subject. Plus, here I didn’t have to grade tests or give homework.”