If you’ve ever been to a Washington Capitals hockey game, you’ve probably seen University of Virginia physics professor Lou Bloomfield on the Verizon Center’s Jumbotron explaining the physics of hockey.
“Professor Lou,” as he is called on TV, is science central on a feature segment called “Forces of Hockey,” which is produced by the Capitals and aired on the team’s associated cable networks, on the NHL Network, and shown during breaks between play at Caps games.
The show, now in its fifth season, has won three regional Emmy Awards for “Outstanding Sports Program/Series,” the most recent this spring.
“I’m probably the only professor just about anywhere who has won three Emmys,” said Bloomfield, who sometimes jokes that he’s not an actor, “I just play one on TV.”
He has been on TV plenty. Bloomfield has over the years explained physics to general audiences on a variety of shows that have appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, The Learning Channel and other cable channels. So many, he can’t remember them all.
“Any science that I can get on TV is a triumph,” he said. “And combining science with sports is a good way to get people’s attention. There has to be a high entertainment level or you lose the audience.”
Bloomfield has a natural talent for explaining simply things that are complex – the science behind the everyday. He has produced two textbooks on physics in ordinary life and fills up his introductory physics classes with nonscience major students. His evaluations have proven that students find him approachable and highly skilled at making science interesting.
“Science shouldn’t be intimidating,” he said.
Using sports, he can explain such concepts as torque, rotation, inertia, you name it. His segments of “Forces of Hockey” have covered everything from the flex of hockey sticks, (to see a video, click here) to the importance of hydration for athletes, to what happens when two opposing forces meet head-on – which often happens to hockey players.
In addition to his classes and TV shows, Bloomfield also teaches a basic physics MOOC – massive open online course – that has enrolled thousands of students worldwide. He gets good evaluations for that work, too, and from far-flung corners of the planet.
So far Bloomfield and the Capitals have produced about 40 segments of “Forces of Hockey,” or about eight per year.
“Sometimes students tell me they saw me on TV or at a Caps game before they ever even enrolled at the University,” he said.
He even has had fans come to him at Caps games and say, “Hey, you’re Professor Lou!”
Of course, he’s got “Professor Lou” stitched onto the back of his Capitals hockey shirt, which he wears on the “Forces of Hockey” segments, and to the games.
Most of Professor Lou’s segments are recorded in his “lab,” which actually is the lecture demonstration room at U.Va.’s physics department. It is filled with an assortment of “tools” to teach physics concepts, from slingshots and bows to musical instruments and skateboards. The professor has made use of many of those items for his various shows, and his students have gotten in on the fun, helping to choose equipment, arrange sets and even edit video.
Bloomfield once did a segment for “Forces of Hockey” on the subject of ice itself, and had a 150-pound block of ice set up on a table in “the lab” where he skated various objects across it.
“The segment went well, but when we were done shooting, we had to get rid of the ice,” he said. “We spent quite a lot of time standing in a puddle of water chopping up the block, disposing of the chunks in sinks, in toilets, anywhere we could get rid of it.”
Another segment was filmed at Charlottesville’s Main Street Arena ice rink, illustrating the science behind ice resurfacing. And an upcoming segment will feature Professor Lou on skates at the Capitals practice ice, the Kettler Capitals Iceplex. He will be explaining the tricky timing involved in a “one-timer” – a scoring shot in which a skilled player slaps a fast-moving puck at right angles to its original path and sends it careening into the goal.
Bloomfield holds a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University and served his postdoctoral fellowship at AT&T Bell Laboratories. At U.Va., he conducts research in atomic physics, condensed matter, and optical physics, and designs new materials. He continues to teach introductory physics because he loves to teach, and he thinks it’s extremely important to develop scientific literacy among people who may never work in a scientific field.
“I came to the University of Virginia expecting to focus primarily on research,” he said. “But I soon discovered that I could make a much bigger impact on the world by explaining science to students and the public. That turns out to be my mission in life.”