October 23, 2017
Is it Football or is it Rocket Science?
An unusual throwdown, and a surprise response
One August morning this year I got an email saying, “Did you hear President Crow challenged the football team to perform as well as Psyche team?” What? But then the article hit my mailbox:
“Arizona State President Michael Crow has a team of scientists working on a spacecraft that will fly to an asteroid that is 280 million miles from the sun and composed of metal worth “10 to the 20th [sic] quadrillion dollars.”
He wants to learn how planets were created, and eventually he wants to mine it.
So, when Crow says ASU aims to be in the same class athletically as Stanford, UCLA, Michigan and Ohio State, one gets the sense that he doesn’t consider that as an overreach.
“Excellence, excellence, excellence, excellence,” he said in remarks that came just days before the start of fall sports…”
— Greg Moore, “Moore: ASU President Michael Crow, AD Ray Anderson put pressure on coach Todd Graham,” azcentral sports, August 16, 2017, http://www.azcentral.com/story/sports/ncaaf/asu/2017/08/16/moore-asu-president-michael-crow-ad-ray-anderson-put-pressure-coach-todd-graham/575053001/?cookies=&from=global
OK, it’s true that a million years ago I played intramural coed hockey, back at MIT, where the motto “Mens et Manus” (Mind and Hand) is not referring to tactics in soccer. But my closest experience of college team sports was watching Penn State football with my Dad, loving hearing him cheer, and sharing in the cream cheese on Triscuits we’d put out for game snacks.
This article with its quotes from ASU President Michael Crow really took me by surprise. We academics usually avoid the hand-slapping, trash-talking, overt expressions of competition. Striving for excellence is a more isolated pursuit, mainly framed as a competition between self and knowledge. Only occasionally between self and that guy at university of whatever. Darn him.
So when the Psyche mission was suddenly held up as the winning example that the football team was meant to live up to, well, I was gobsmacked. Look it up. I was. We use athletics metaphors all the time to express victory or defeat, but I think this is the first time in my life I have ever seen a science metaphor used to drive high-level athletics. Even better was what landed in my email box the next day, here with permission from its anonymous writer:
Team Psyche vs. the Orbital Mechanics
Tempe, Arizona — 2017
Coach Lindy “ET” Elkins-Tanton says the upcoming matchup with the Orbital Mechanics will really test the mettle of Team Psyche, but we have no doubt we can run the numbers on these guys. While we’re fortunate to have outstanding support from our Discovery Program coaching staff, it’s important for everyone to keep in mind that they’ll be on the sidelines or up in the press box calling the plays. They won’t actually be on the field. The Mechanics are tough, experienced, and have had a lot of stability in their roster — especially on their defensive squad — for a very long time.
On the other hand, our team has the mission, the plan, the ball and the ball carrier. We know where we’re going and we know how to get there. Some may opine this is no game for SESEs, but those who do don’t know us. Admittedly, we don’t have much of a line. It’s basically just the center, the quarterback and the ball, and we only have one play: We’re going into the deep space of their backfield.
Nevertheless, we calculate we can make this one play work.
On game day, Team Psyche will set up, take one last scan of the field, launch the ball, and score, despite the suffocating prevent defense the Orbital Mechanics put up EVERY time.
It is a daunting prospect:
First, the Mechanics have gravity on their side. As the Mythbusters like to say, “Gravity . . . it’s not just a good idea, it’s the LAW!” Simply put, we have to beat their defensive line, the deeply experienced “Gravity Well,” working the trenches where games are won and lost.
Once through the Well, we still have to get past, A. J. “Space” DeBris and “Moon” Satellite, the Mechanics’ so-called “Double Trouble” linebackers. These two orbit close to the line of scrimmage and can create real havoc if you lose focus early on.
Assuming we make it past Double Trouble, Mars “The Undertaker,” playing strong safety, is out there lurking in the “Graveyard of the Solar System” along with the “The Greeks”–cornerbacks Demios and the much-feared Phobos. This trio of deep defensive backs has an enviable 26 and 16 record, and has been responsible for defeating many multi-national and national teams over a 56 year career. These guys are tough! However, rather than direct contact, we’ll be using Mars and The Greeks as the pivot for an end run to the end zone. We should be OK. They’ll see us coming, but by the time they react, we’ll be gone.
Finally, in addition to this legendary defensive clout close to the line, The Mechanics have a final defensive rabbit to pull out of their celestial hat: their “swarm” defense, the nano-backs making up the Asteroid Belt.
The Belt itself is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Solar System . . . “It don’t get no respect!” Sure, everyone wants to know everything there is to know about the big-name marquee players, especially Jupiter, Saturn and their posses of well-known and exotic hangers-on like Io, Europa and Titan. But nobody seems to know, or be much interested in, the Belt’s nano-backs who are there day-in and day-out doing the dirty work of making sure the others stay organized and in their lanes, meanwhile taking a serous beating themselves in the process. As a consequence, The Belt has a real bad attitude, seems to be everywhere at once, runs unpredictable stunts and is very dangerous as a result.
Assuming we can finesse The Belt’s chaotic, “accretionary” defense (characterized by both hit-and-run and direct impact plays), we’ll cross the goal line in one piece, go deep in the end zone, and celebrate with a 21-month touchdown dance before finally spiking the ball.
Mark your calendars now for the summer of 2022. This is a match up you won’t want to miss!
And in the spirit of expressing competition, shortly we’ll share a blog post on what it was like to go through the NASA review site visit, the most intense experience of many of our lives. I guess it really was competition. And, Go Sun Devils!