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NDSU Students Win Bronze in Basketball/Physics Competition

February 8, 2012 – Fargo, N.D. – Three physics students at North Dakota State University, Fargo, have received the equivalent of a bronze medal in the international University Physics Competition. The students had just 48 hours to solve a physics problem involving three-point shooting in Olympic basketball, using math and physics to determine what initial ball velocities and spins will result in a successful shot from the three-point line, using international basketball rules. Senior physics majors Marne Johnson from Rugby, N.D., and Brandon Johnson, from Hazen, N.D., along with Ahis Shrestha, a junior in physics and math from Nepal, dedicated a weekend to crunching numbers and formulating calculations for the contest.

It is the first time NDSU students have participated in the competition since it began two years ago. During the contest, students work in teams of three at their home colleges and universities all over the world, analyzing a real-world scenario using the principles of physics and submitting a formal paper about their work. Everything is done over a 48-hour period. Dr. Sylvio May, associate professor of physics at NDSU, said the competition was a good fit, since the problem was an application of classical mechanics, a class which all three of the students studied in fall semester. “I hope they like the intellectual challenge and the opportunity to work as a team on a problem that has no simple solution,” said May.

Photo of a player making a basketball jump shotThe students say the competition benefited them in different ways. “I was surprised by the amount of heavy computation that can go into something as simple and intuitive as throwing a basketball,” said Brandon Johnson. “I chose to partake in the competition because I wanted to test my current knowledge against a real life application. Through the competition, I learned some of the value of teamwork in physics,” he said. “The time limit was intense, to say the least.”

Senior Marne Johnson said she participated because the competition sounded fun and challenging. “I would be working with classmates I knew and trusted, and it would be good exposure to real-life physics problems. I was surprised by the difficulty we experienced mathematically modeling a moving projectile,” said Marne. “Physics such as this in such a short time window is stressful but exciting, because you know you have a deadline to meet.” It gave students useful lessons in time management. “I also received an extremely abbreviated lesson in typesetting and graphing in Mathematica®.” Marne had never before used the powerful software program for complex calculations. “But it is the best program out there for writing physics and math papers, so learn I did.”

Junior Ahis Shrestha found the crash course in solving physics problems useful as well. “I am usually a pen-and-paper person but because of the limited time, we had to use Wolfram Mathematica® for faster calculations and, as a result, I ended up learning the convenience of computational methods while solving a problem,” said Ahis. “Of course, this was possible with the help and cooperation of Brandon and Marne.”

The students spent most of a weekend in November doing calculations, covering everything from a three-point shot with nothing but net, to rim shot, bank shot, spin or no spin on the ball.

basketball game shotsWhile basketball is either a spectator or a participant sport, few people realize that shooting a basketball is all about physics. Gravity, a projectile moving through a fluid medium (air), whether the ball touches the rim or backboard, if there’s spin on the ball, or the range of horizontal and vertical angles—all factors that determine whether the shot is successful.

So the next time your favorite basketball player lines up for that three-point shot to win the game, remember, it’s all about physics.

The NDSU physics team was among 77 teams from around the world, including China, Singapore, Mexico and the United Kingdom, that competed in the challenge. Of those competing, 3 percent of the teams were ranked as Gold Medal Winners, 18 percent were ranked as Silver Medal Winners, and 27 percent were ranked as Bronze Medal Winners for their work. The American Physical Society and the American Astronomical Society sponsored the competition.

The three NDSU students don’t think their fascination with physics will end anytime soon. “Most behavior that we observe in the physical world can be described in terms of physics, whether it may be shooting a basketball, launching a rocket, ripples on a lake, motion of a planet, etc.,” said Ahis. Both Marne and Brandon plan to attend graduate school and Ahis also plans to pursue graduate studies in mathematical physics and work on scientific research.

Information about the University Physics Competition is available at

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