Book Review: Fight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial Arts

Bill Mattocks

Sr. Grandmaster
MTS Alumni
Feb 8, 2009
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I recently was given this book as a gift:

Fight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial Arts
by Jason Thalken

Fight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial Arts: Jason Thalken: 9781594393389: Books

The author is a physicist and a martial artist, so it's a good combination from someone who understands both topics well enough to speak intelligently about them. This is a short book, only 128 pages.

I found the author to be entertaining and logical. His premises are very easy to follow. There isn't a lot of meat to it, but what there is, makes sense. The first few chapters establish how some of the basics of martial arts (blocks, strikes, and redirections) work according to basic physics. This is stuff that a good martial artist knows how to do, but may not know 'why' it works the way it does. Why is it important to know? Because if you understand the scientific principles behind what you're doing and understand why it works (and why it doesn't), you may be able to expand your abilities and see other opportunities where they may occur. Levers, triangles, conservation of energy, angular momentum, speed versus mass, it's really good stuff. I will absolutely be able to process this and use it to my advantage going forward.

The next part of the book deals with head injuries and how they happen. Informative, and the author makes some suppositions that seem quite logical, but I'm not a doctor or a physicist. Basically, the gist of his argument seems to be that it is rotational injury to the head that causes the kind of brain damage many boxers (and lately football players, etc) are known for. In other words, the 'knock out punch' that boxers train to deliver is a punch that stretches the neck in such a way as to cause traumatic injury to the brain that is only evident many years later, and which cannot be repaired or even detected until it is far too late. A bit depressing, that. In my opinion, although this is terrific information, it doesn't really help me, other than to inform me to try to avoid getting hit with rotational force on my head and neck.

The last bit of the book deals with 'chi' or 'ki' force, which the author summarily dismisses as rubbish and superstition. He does point out that a lot of what is often seen or explained to be 'chi' does actually exist, but it's not what it is being taught as. For example, early in the book, the author discusses center of gravity and where it is located (dan tien, in chi terms). He explains where to find it, how it works, how to use it to your advantage. He completely trashes the notion that the 'dan tien' is a real thing, or that it is mystical or anything like that. He similarly takes apart notions like the 'hara' and so on.

He utterly rubbishes the 'no touch' knockouts and other 'chi-based' martial arts taught by certain practitioners whom I will not name here (but he does). He points out simply that such feats only work on believers and followers, which is to say that they do not work at all. He tears apart certain traditional martial arts practices such as board and concrete breaking, and even including beds of nails and breaking boards over karateka, etc.

However, he does admit that there is a lot about the human body that we do not understand and can't explain entirely yet, and he gives some examples, such as pressure points that when hit or compressed or grabbed in a particular way, do what they are advertised to do. He gives no explanation for these, other than to acknowledge that they exist.

I will say that I agreed with many if not most of the author's conclusions. I will say that in my opinion, he is overly harsh about some of his condemnation of chi/ki or whatever you want to call it. I think that despite the fact that the basis for such beliefs is mystical, there is solid science supporting some of it (which he points out), but it doesn't really matter if we wish to call it 'chi' or whatever. He is a bit too harsh, I think. I noticed he pointed out that breaking concrete is 'fake' because karateka put spacers between the bricks so that each break is as easy as one break - it takes force, but not that much, and certainly no 'mystical' energy. Well, we break concrete pavers, but we do it without spacers. So there, Mister man. Two bricks for me is two bricks, no cheating.

I also have to say that although I believe much more in science than in mysticism, I have seen a couple things demonstrated to my satisfaction that currently I do not have a scientific explanation for. Not a huge deal, and I'm much more scientifically-inclined than otherwise, but I've seen enough that my mind remains open to possibilities.

Overall, I can recommend this book, especially for the insights to be gained in the first few chapters. I think it all could have been said in a much smaller work, and this book itself is not very large to begin with. But the information is still useful. More important, perhaps, than anything else in the book is the author's recommendation to not trust anyone, not even him, and to go out and prove things on one's own. Good advice always.