On a fine Saturday afternoon in June, the Lawrence Hall of Science—the UC Berkeley–affiliated children’s science museum nestled high atop the Berkeley hills—hosted, of all things, a Tony Hawk skateboarding demonstration.
The Lawrence Hall of Science’s new skateboarding-themed physics exhibit, entitled, fittingly enough, Tony Hawk: Rad Science, features engaging displays such as “Newton’s Pool,” “Tony’s 900 Vert Theatre,” “Skateboard Evolution,” “Wipeout Ambulance,” and “Bodacious Board Balance,” in which visitors “ride stationary skateboards designed to test your balance in classic tricks like ‘grinding’ and ‘manuals’ on the safety of a padded surface.”
Outside, the scene included about 1,700 cheering parents/children, an interactive live performance from a Radio Disney team, a half-pipe ramp, and a net to prevent boards from flying into the audience. Tommy Guerrero and Jim Thiebaud—founding fathers of the Bay Area skate scene—were also in attendance, as was skateboard designer Paul Schmitt, who had donned a white lab coat for the occasion.
The Radio Disney team danced about and warmed up the crowd with hula-hoops, a breakdancing DJ, games, and other family-friendly activities as top-40 hits blared from speakers. In one game, the Radio Disney team cried out the name of an action sports athlete (Rob Dyrdek! Danny Way! Bucky Lasek!) as contestants guessed whether this was a Motocross rider, a BMX rider, or a professional skateboarder.1
“Bucky Lasek!… Skateboarder!!… That’s right!!!…”
Prior to the commencement of these festivities, Tony Hawk himself emerged from a VIP tent for a meet and greet with the media. Despite glaring sunlight, Hawk politely removed his sunglasses almost as soon as he entered the makeshift press pen. Like Warren Buffet, he has a reputation for seeming essentially unaffected by attention, to still be “the same old Tony,” to never put on airs.
The name itself feels perfectly appropriate—fits like a stage name—not just for his achievements as an aerialist but also because of his egret frame, because everything about him (long face, long limbs, perching posture) suggests the potential for flight.
Tony Hawk told KGO Radio, the Daily Californian, and Wired that science had been among his favorite subjects in school.
“So your father was a scientist,” said a T-shirt-and-shorts-wearing Daily Californian correspondent.
“No. Actually, he was in the Navy. That’s, kind of, science,” Hawk said with an amicable laugh and a shrug.
Who, wondered this writer, is the most scientifically minded pro skater?
“Rodney Mullen, for sure,” said Hawk. “Because he’s passionate about studying it, just for fun. He’s too smart for his own good. This is more for kids who are interested in skating, and maybe this is the gateway for them to start understanding principles of physics and science.”
“I like the theory of the push and pull,” continued Hawk. “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Because [in skateboarding], you don’t really think about what is being pulled, necessarily, in the other direction. I like that being illustrated.”
Cameras clicked and flashed.
Hawk’s last interview of the day was endearingly conducted by five lucky 4th graders who the museum had invited to query the world-renowned skater. It was truly touching to see how genuinely Hawk seemed to enjoy this, how charmed he seemed by the kids. He looked down on them with the entirely pleasant demeanor and slightly private amusement of a popular youth minister.
4TH GRADER: How did you do that thing where you jumped over a car?
HAWK: Um, I got a lot of speed. And, uh, I believed I could do it.
4TH GRADER: How many skateboards have you used?
HAWK: I don’t know how many I have used. It’s tricky to figure out. I’d say somewhere in the thousands, for sure. [Laughs.]
LHS REPRESENTATIVE: Do you have any questions for them?
HAWK: So what made you guys want to come here?
4TH GRADER: You’re awesome.
HAWK: What did you like about the exhibit?
4TH GRADER: It shows the different skateboards.
HAWK: Oh, like the history of it? Do you guys believe they will ever have a hoverboard?
4TH GRADER: Kind of.
HAWK: Maybe you’re the guy to design the hoverboard. Do you guys like science?
4TH GRADER (s): Yes… yes… no…
4TH GRADER: In science we had to touch a crab.
SCIENCE IS SICK.
“These guys are going to get gnarly…We got exhibits inside that explain all the science behind skateboarding, from the friction to the gravitational pull,” an MC exhorted as The Clash poured forth from the speakers and what in many ways amounted to a typical skate demo began.
Vert skaters Neil Hendrix, Kevin Staab, and Lincoln Ueda careened up and down the ramp, burst into the air, slid back down.
Not so typical was the presence of UC Berkeley physics professor Joel Fajans, who, as the skaters performed their maneuvers, held a microphone and stood atop the ramp’s deck describing some of the physics on display.
“Maybe you could explain some concepts like centrifugal force,” said the MC.
“Well, when somebody spins, there’s basically three axes around which they can spin,” said Professor Fajans over the cacophony of grinding guitars, coping, and tail taps.
“I think I get that,” said the MC. “Yeah! Cab backside disaster from Tony Hawk right into a frontside blunt. So difficult… Look at that centrifugal force on that heelflip frontside air.”
As this was one of the first (if not the only) attempts in human history to marry an introductory physics lecture to live vert skating, here and there were a couple of entirely forgivable, very modest hiccups. At one point the music (“The Rat,” by The Walkmen) drowned out Professor Fajans’s attempt to describe what was happening on the ramp and his commentary trailed off, no match for the wailing punky anthem. At another point the MC introduced Professor Fajans as the “head of the UC Berkeley physics department!” With a smile, Fajans noted that he was merely a professor of physics at UC Berkeley, not actually the department chair.
But these extremely minor hitches were barely noticed amidst the demo’s playful yet highly educational atmosphere.
There was, indeed, something to be learned at every turn.
Professor Fajans was wearing a blue T-shirt on the back of which appeared several yellow equations of uncertain significance.
Professor Fajans patiently explained to a reporter that the series of equations was a “pathetic physics pun” and that when completed the equation spelled “Cal.” To get the joke, all a reporter had to remember, Professor Fajans again patiently explained, was that Albert Einstein’s most famous equation was E=MC2 2 and that Newton’s most famous equation was the square root of something, something, something…
Near the end of the demo, Tony Hawk pointed an index finger at the crowd.
The crowd cheered.
ENERGY CAN BE NEITHER CREATED NOR DESTROYED.
After the demo, autograph seekers swarmed the perpetually self-possessed Hawk. As they foisted T-shirts, flyers, brochures, and skateboards towards his face, he looked resigned, intent, a little tired. (He had, after all, just given about a dozen interviews and then engaged in a solid hour of intense athletic activity, which would be swiftly followed by many other professional obligations, a charity ball for the museum that evening, etc.)
“My life is complete! I just got Tony Hawk’s autograph on a Thrasher cover,” quipped Chris Kiuchi, an exhilarated Alameda-based graphic designer and parent, hoisting his spoils in the air. “This is one of the best things that the museum has done. It’s ingenious.”
“It’s one thing to see it from the distance,” said Professor Fajans of his very first time on a vert ramp. (There had been no dress rehearsal.) “But to actually be up there and have them just rise up in front of you… it’s just amazing. Especially when they were doing those stunts where they do two or three things in the air. Maybe from the distance it looks safer. But when it’s close up and you see these bodies flying around… I was not in control. Let’s put it that way. The skaters are barely in control.”
“It’s controlled chaos, to a certain extent,” offered Paul Schmitt.
Perhaps that sun-drenched day at the Lawrence Hall of Science there was one as-yet-unknown professional skateboarder/theoretical physicist who (in between watching Hawk toss his helmet into the crowd, Neil Hendrix perform a frontside heelflip, and Fajans describe the vectors of a McTwist) suddenly realized that being a “skate rat” and loving science were not mutually exclusive propositions.
“Let’s just say I wish I would have learned physics the way these kids are getting to learn it today with an awesome skateboarding exhibit like that,” said professional skater Kevin Staab, his nose pierced and his hair spiked and dyed his signature purple, fingers festooned with silver skull-and-crossbones rings. “I might have paid attention in school.”
1 A member of the Radio Disney team—an Asian male with a purple-streaked “faux hawk”—clapped his hands to the beat with a cheerleader’s quick, propulsive steps and a lip-synched smile.
2 Fajans: What’s the one thing you know about Einstein? The one equation? Author: E = mc2. Fajans: And divide it by m, what do you get? Author: Uh… I don’t know. Fajans: Yes, you do… What’s the one equation from Newton that you’ve heard of?… The next one is more subtle…The Omega is the mathematical expression for angular momentum, which is actually very important for these [skateboarding] tricks out there.