When scientists chime in on Deflategate, it’s bad news for Ted Wells.
The latest pummeling of the ill-conceived report comes from the respected editors of “Science News” who published their findings of a survey of scientists who carefully examined footballs to simulate the conditions of the AFC championship game on Jan. 18 in Foxboro.
In a story entitled, “Deflategate Favored Foul Play over Science,” reporter Rachel Ehrenberg consulted several scientists from both academia and industry, and the findings do not support the conclusions reached by Ted Wells in his report. The Wells report dismisses any significant atmospheric impact on the deflated footballs, concluding that the deflation came primarily from an attempt by the Patriots to intentionally deflate the balls below the 12.5 PSI threshold.
On June 23, the NFL commissioner will hear the appeal of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady‘s four-game suspension, one of the punishments that resulted from the controversy,” Ehrenberg writes. “Patriots’ team equipment managers may have intentionally underinflated game balls and Brady may have known about it I won’t weigh in on that here. But the scandal, which propelled the ideal gas law to the front pages of sports sections, inspired an odd mix of experts to choose science over sports, and that’s almost always a win.
To Ehrenberg’s point, in his now-famous scientific press conference eight days before Super Bowl XLIX, Patriots coach Bill Belichick pointed to “climatic conditions,” “equilibrium states” and “atmospheric conditions” to explain the deflation. Bill Nye, with his mechanical engineering degree, came out within 24 hours to laugh at Belichick’s science. But, as “Science News” points out, it’s Belichick who should be enjoying the last laugh.
Here’s what Ehrenberg found and detailed:
If the initial pressure of a football measured in a warm locker room during pre-game inspection was 12.5 psi, could the roughly 25-degree-Fahrenheit drop in temperature between the locker room and the rainy field that day account for the lower air pressure of a ball measured at halftime?
Scientist Michael Naughton (expert in condensed matters physics, Buffalo Bills fan) lent his expertise to the matter when the controversy initially blew up. Naughton’s lab at Boston College inflated a football to 13.5 psi at 72 degrees F. Then they stuck it in a fridge and measured the pressure at 42 degrees F (slightly cooler than the low on game night of 47.7 degrees F, the average of measurements from two weather stations near Gillette Stadium). The pressure dropped to 10.5 psi.
HeadSmart labs, a Pittsburgh-based engineering firm that ordinarily conducts research related to helmets and concussions, also turned its attention to the matter. Experiments done by CEO Tom Healy (mechanical engineering Ph.D. student, Patriots fan) and others in the lab (not Patriots fans) simulated field conditions by placing 12 balls inflated to 12.5 psi in a cold room for 2.5 hours. Measurements revealed an average drop of 1.07 psi, well within the range of the halftime measurements. Saturating the balls with water to mimic field conditions bumped the measurements down another 0.75 psi, they conclude in a technical paper. (HeadSmart has launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise research funds to further investigate the matter.)
The kerfuffle provided a teachable moment for physics teachers everywhere, and despite Deflategate fatigue, homework problems featuring the ideal gas law ‘ which relates temperature, pressure and volume to an amount of a gas (in moles) ‘ will likely be assigned for years to come. This science matters well beyond the football field: Understanding the gas law means knowing whether a scuba diver will experience potentially fatal bends when returning to surface waters, why life-saving contraptions like fire extinguishers and airbags work, and how hot air balloons and combustion engines do their stuff.
But instead of acknowledging that game day conditions could have accounted for the psi changes, an acknowledgement that wouldn’t preclude other evidence of foul play, the NFL’s Wells Report concludes that there’s an ‘absence of a credible scientific explanation for the Patriots halftime measurements.’
It would be one thing if the Wells Report (which consulted Daniel Marlow, experimental high energy physics expert at Princeton) just said that additional evidence (bathroom breaks and text messages, among other things) was more compelling than the pressure data. Or if it noted that the pressure data are ambiguous, collected so haphazardly that they wouldn’t be allowed in a high school science fair: Two different gauges that differed by approximately 0.4 psi were used in taking measurements, and it isn’t clear which one was used in the pre-game measurements because those data were not recorded. At halftime, 11 Patriots’ balls and four Colts’ balls were measured, and while all of the Patriots’ balls measured below 12.5 psi, three of the four Colts’ balls also did, according to one of the gauges.