Friday, October 2, 2009

The Arbitrary Precision of a Close Finish

Michael Phelps won his seventh gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games by one-hundredth of a second—a fraction of an eye-blink, measurable only with precision instruments. In terms of distance, Phelps won by two millimeters.

Writing in Vanity Fair, Steve King uses this context when quoting an unnamed expert in the timing of sporting events:

“We take it for granted that the swimmers are all swimming the same length in the race, but they’re not. The very best construction specs will say, ‘This pool is 50 metres plus or minus one quarter of an inch’… Our ability to build things isn’t nearly as good as our ability to time them.” Consider the implications when Michael Phelps’s seventh gold medal in 2008 was won by two millimetres over a 100-metre race.

[from “End Game” in Vanity Fair, via @pkedrosky]

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