Ray Penner couldn’t have imagined that writing a paper on the physics of golf would one day lead to an Emmy Award. But win an Emmy he did – a George Wensel Technical Achievement Award for his work on a technology used by the Golf Channel.
“If someone had asked me a couple of years ago what the chances of winning an Emmy were, I’d say about the same as winning a Grammy,” said Penner, a Physics professor at Vancouver Island University (VIU). “If you’ve ever heard me sing, you’d realize it’s very low.”
Penner was approached by Florida-based Aim Point Technologies to work on a program that would predict the path a golf ball would have to follow to land in the hole. He was part of a team of eight people who worked on the technology for about a year.
“I had published quite a few papers on the physics of golf, including the physics of putting and the basic motion of the ball on flat green,” he said. “They asked me to develop the equations needed to determine the path that a golf ball will follow on a real green.”
“In order to obtain accurate results, you need to precisely survey in the greens,” said Penner. “Knowing the slopes of the different parts of the green allows the physics to calculate the golf ball’s path.”
Penner is happy with the final product. “You can only get so precise, but it certainly works well,” he said. “It was rewarding to see the end result on TV and not just in a physics journal.”
Although the team was happy with their creation, the Emmy nod was unexpected. “We were thrilled to be nominated – to win it was just a surprise,” said Penner. “It was the Golf Channel’s first award.”
The technology is unique to television because it predicts the shot ahead of time rather than analyzing the play afterwards.
“Some people don’t like the idea of showing what the golfer is going to do, but the pro-golfers really liked it,” Penner said. “The first big use was with the LPGA and it has since expanded to the PGA.”
Penner said his interest in the physics of golf comes from a general curiosity about the way things work.
“I started playing golf ten years ago and wondered why the clubs are made a certain way and why the ball moves the way it does,” he said, adding that science is at work everywhere. “There is physics all around you.”
According to Penner, the demand for physicists is quite high in sports and entertainment field. “Physics is used a lot in the sports world especially in the design of new equipment.”
Physicists are also needed in the software industry. “Any game with movement has a physics engine. A video game with wave motion for instance, needs physics in order to make it look realistic. You have to understand the movement of a wave and you do that through physics.”
Penner said VIU offers a two year transfer program to UVic or UBC. He said the advantage of attending a smaller program like the one at VIU is that it’s more laid back than bigger schools. “Especially when students have ideas, or want to make changes in their labs,” he said. “We can be flexible.”
Although Penner loves sports, his latest endeavour has more to do with philanthropy than entertainment. He is currently working on a project called Lights for Education and Development in Africa (www.ledafrica.org), designing and installing LED lighting & solar power to bring efficient and affordable lighting to schools in Malawi, Africa.