As you watch high jumpers sail over the bar this summer at the London Olympic Games, keep this equation in mind: U2 = 2gH. It explains why most of jumpers do the backward flip known as the Fosbury Flop. As University of Cambridge mathematician John Barrow writes in his book Mathletics: A Scientist Explains 100 Amazing Things about the World of Sports (W. W. Norton, 2012), the Fosbury Flop keeps one’s center of gravity low to the ground, and the lower one’s center of gravity, the less energy is required to successfully jump over the bar. In the above equation, U is the speed of the jumper (and thus the energy required), g is the acceleration caused by gravity, and H is the height of the center of gravity. Surprisingly, it is possible for the high jumper’s body to fly over the bar while his or her center of gravity passes below it.
Now, you might ask, why do many of the jumpers leap backward? That part is easy: when your back is to the pole, there is less chance that your arms or legs will hit the bar and knock it down.
Rose Eveleth is a writer and producer based in New York City. She's dabbled in everything from research on pelagic invertebrates to animations about beer to podcasts about fake tumbleweed farms. She's also obsessed with the sounds things make - so if you have anything cool for her to listen to, she wants to hear it! You can follow her at @roseveleth or check out her website roseveleth.com.