Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Physics Gene

David Epstein hasn't written a book about talent and physics, but he has written one about talent in sports: The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. Yao Ming, the Chinese and NBA center, was the product of a Chinese Basketball Association breeding program. In some sports the effect of talent is enormous. Stephen V. Roberts, reviewing the book in the Washington Post tells the following Epstein stories:

Donald Thomas was bragging to his pals on the college track team about his dunking skills on the basketball court. So they bet that he couldn’t clear 6-feet-6-inches in a high-jump contest. When Thomas sailed over a bar set at seven feet, the losers urged their coach to recruit him. Eighteen months later, he won the world championship.

Albert Pujols is one of the best baseball players of his age, but when facing Jennie Finch, a softball pitcher who threw underhanded, he struck out. Badly.

It turns out that hitting a baseball (or a softball)requires a lot of specific training as well as talent. High jumping, not so much. In either case, though, talent is crucial. Thomas was born with a giant achilles tendon that could store lots of energy. Professional sports (in the US that means both the officially professional sports and the professional sports played by colleges) have increasingly been looking at genetic analysis in picking the specific kinds of athletes they want, position by position in highly specialized sports like American football.

Talent isn't just physical. Sled racing dogs are some of the animal world's best athletes - ok, the world's best athletes, period. They are bred more for personality - desire - than any other trait.

It's impossible to expect that the same kind of selection will not, or is not, already being applied to humans in non athletic endeavors. One can imagine a future Harvard selecting its Freshman class by DNA instead of test scores (high school grades will still be important, but as an indication of learned skill and confirmation that the genes are expressed truly.)

"I'm sorry Dr. X., but your DNA says you would be a bad choice for a tenure award."

PS - Do you possess the irony gene? There are ways to test for it.