Master stroke: A formula for record-breaking rowing?
By Justin Mullins There are many ways to row a boat, but it took a physicist to figure out which should work best IT IS 7am on a cloudy Monday morning and the banks of the river Thames in west London are humming with activity in preparation for an experiment. At the Imperial College Boat Club, the men’s rowing eight are about to take to the water in an unusual boat. The placement of rowers in a boat – its “rig” – conventionally has the oars arranged alternately to the left and right. In this boat, however, the order is seemingly random. As the crew gingerly takes to the water, the first two men are pulling to the left, the next four to the right and the final two to the left. The crew is testing a rig suggested by John Barrow, a mathematical physicist at the University of Cambridge. According to Barrow’s calculations, this configuration should outperform the standard rig in one very important way. The puzzle is that this configuration has never been used in a top-class competitive race, as far as Barrow can tell. “The rig seems entirely new to rowing,” he says. So this morning’s paddle, at New Scientist’s suggestion, is a rough test of whether his calculations have the ring of truth. The force generated by an oar being pulled through water has been well studied by rowing coaches. Though the size and direction of this force varies throughout the stroke, it can always be resolved into two components: