Perspectives: Learning physics from the Aborigines

OPINION – As citizens of a first world nation, modesty is not one of our strong points.

Surrounded by all of our technological marvels, I once scoffed at the idea that I could learn anything of interest from a primitive culture. But that all changed the first time I tried to throw a boomerang.

It was part of an assignment in a physics class I was taking and it was a definite eye-opener.

At first glance, throwing a boomerang looks ridiculously easy, but getting one to take flight and return to precisely where it started is a serious challenge. It’s also an immensely fun and enlightening undertaking that begins with some basic aerodynamics.

Like an aircraft, the boomerang relies on a pair of wings with a curved surface over which airflow creates low pressure that, in turn, creates the lift that generates flight. Unlike an aircraft, the boomerang’s roundabout flight starts with the launch of the thrower’s arm and is then sustained by continuous rotation.

The combination of spinning forces that keep the boomerang aloft is called gyroscopic precession.

While technically accurate, this term doesn’t begin to hint at the challenge involved in properly throwing a boomerang. It may look simple enough when an Aborigine does it, but there’s a fair amount of technique involved.

The blades must be oriented so that the lift-generating surface is correctly positioned prior to launch. In my experience, this meant throwing the boomerang with the open ends of the blades leading rather than the “v” where they are joined. This seems like a minor detail, but it made all difference in getting the boomerang to launch successfully.

The boomerang is thrown overhand just like a baseball with the bottom part of the lower wing gripped between the thumb and forefinger and a forward snap of the wrist as the thrower releases. It’s essential to release the boomerang in as close to a vertical position as possible. The vertical attitude of the boomerang will quickly stabilize itself into horizontal flight as the rotations increase.

Rather than trying to throw the boomerang high into the air, the best results come from picking an aiming point just above the horizon.

This is when the magic happens.

The boomerang should start with a low and straight trajectory. As the forces of lift take over, it should suddenly soar in a curving path to the peak of its flight and then return in a gentle hovering rotation to the point from which it was thrown. Inadequate rotation will cause the boomerang to lose lift shortly after reaching its apex at which point it simply falls to the ground.

Wind plays a crucial role in how the boomerang will fly. Since the goal is to get the boomerang to return to the point of throw, even relatively minor breezes can send it off course to one side or soaring far over the head of the thrower upon return.

Throwing the boomerang at a 45-50 degree angle to the oncoming wind allows the thrower to take advantage of the lift provided by the increased airflow just as aircraft do when they take off into the wind.

Choosing an open space in which to practice is essential. The instruction manual included with the boomerang suggested a minimum obstacle-free radius of at least 50-yards. But the boomerang is capable of traveling remarkable distances depending upon the wind and the thrower’s abilities.

My first attempts to master the boomerang took place at a neighborhood park. But after finding myself climbing over fences and onto roofs to retrieve the boomerang, it became clear that a field with a 100-yard or greater obstacle free radius is a better choice.

The field between Cedar Middle School and Park Discovery proved to be perfect.

After a few hours of practice, and with the encouragement of a handful of onlookers, the boomerang was soaring high and gently returning to me on each throw. My only regret was that that I hadn’t brought my kids along to join in the fun.

I couldn’t help but marvel at how the primitive people who invented and used the boomerang first arrived at the idea and how they developed it. To the uninitiated, the prospect of throwing a boomerang appears remarkably simple and uncomplicated until they actually attempt it.

It’s not as easy as it looks.

It was an excellent reminder that, no matter how advanced may we consider ourselves, learning is still fun.

Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives talk show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: bryanh@stgnews.com

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.

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