Science Week: Giving textbook physics lessons the chop

DIT lecturer uses Korean martial arts to impart understanding of mass and velocity

If you’ve ever wanted to replicate Bruce Lee’s wood-splitting punch, but have been too concerned about maintaining your hand’s wellbeing, a physics lesson might offer the solution.

Dr Rob Howard shared the science of successful self-defence with secondary school students at the Dublin Institute of Technology on Tuesday, eliciting shrieks as he shattered concrete tiles and wooden boards with his hands and feet.

As well as being a lecturer at DIT's school of physics, Howard is also an eighth level, senior master of Taekwondo who took up the martial art as the nine-year-old son of Europe's first grandmaster.

After starting chemistry studies at DIT, Howard was inspired by a lecturer to take up physics and, as he understood more about it, he could see its laws playing out in the dojang – or training hall – where he continued to practice the Korean martial art.


“The more I looked at it, the more I thought, this is just first year physics, this is just Leaving Cert physics,” he said.

Punch impact


masterful punch

can have a force of almost 5,000 newtons, the equivalent of dropping a cow on someone’s head, says Howard. A solid understanding of mass, velocity, and positioning, as well as potential, kinetic and deformation energy, can maximise a punch’s damage, while minimising the chances of needing medical attention.

Since presenting his ideas for the first time at an event organised by DIT's student physics society, Howard has travelled the country with his 76-year-old father, peppering physics lessons with martial arts demolition. This was his second time bringing the presentation to Science Week.

Students who, in typical teenage fashion, began the session slouched in their seats, jolted upright at the sound of yelling and cracking wood, immediately asking their teachers how the physics lecturer had done that.

“My job in this talk is not to teach the physics, it’s just to kind of inspire them and make them interested, because they will be going back to their classes and learning the physics I talked about today. The teachers have the harder job,” adds Howard.