Over the weekend I found myself once again in the library slogging through a set of physics homework problems, while simultaneously engaging in the age-old procrastination technique of chatting with a friend online.

Friend: What are you learning about anyway?

Me: Electric charges, forces and fields.

Friend: Fun?

Me: Not even remotely.

Friend: And that is going to make you a better doctor because…?

Me: Because I’ll theoretically someday understand how MRI machines work? Let me get back to you on that one.

I’ve been asked that question a number of times. Why physics? How does my ability to calculate the attractive force between two charged particles help heal the sick? Actual medical students will tell that they don’t use any of it the moment they’re free of the class. Physics professors and textbook authors put up pictures of medical machines invented by physicists and throw in practice questions about blood pressure and traction rigs. Last semester’s physics TA suggested that they want us to be better analytical thinkers. One of the doctors I talked to thinks it’s a conspiracy to bulk up funding for physics departments in major universities.

There has thus far been no satisfying answer as to why physics is one of the core requirements for medical school. Whereas biology and organic chemistry have a clear connection to body function, it’s hard to see a situation in which doctor would need to understand more than the most simple of physical concepts. Even the professors who teach it seem to be at a bit of a loss as to why their classroom is filled with pre-med students.

Which is why, when I ran across this article about the concussion epidemic found in professional football players, it surprised me how many physics concept played a crucial role in the medicine described.

The article focuses on the physical dangers inherent in playing professional football; in particular the long term brain damage that can result from multiple small concussions sustained over a career in the sport. It also highlights the reluctance with which the football community accepted this danger.

It also, to my narrowed point of view, points out the danger of underestimating physics as it applies to medicine. Sports doctors used to take a “shake it off” mentality toward head injury, throwing players who had sustained concussions back into the game with minimal recovery time. From physics, however, we know that when two objects of known mass and velocity collide, there are actual quantifiable concepts, like energy and momentum, that can indicate the level of damage that has taken place. It’s not that a doctor might be asked to complete complex physical equations in the midst of a medical crisis, but understanding the concepts can provide indicators for doctors. Physics can add to the clues; pointing a physician in the direction of a symptom that might not be immediately obvious.

What does this mean for football? Well, I’ll leave that to writers more versed in the sport than I. As always, the politics of medicine are nearly as complex as the science itself, especially given the fierce culture surrounding the sport. Still, it’s nice to see that some of my seemingly futile struggles might be moving me somewhat in the direction I intend to progress.

 

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