The Physics of Fighting
Martial Arts with A Cosmic Perspective
In many ways, the human body is the pinnacle of modern bio-engineering. While all living organisms have and continue to evolve to suit their environment, homo sapiens are particularly well-suited to rapid adaptation. And nowhere else is the human physique epitomized more than via athletics. Whether it's running, throwing, jumping or kicking, the natural human form truly stands out as superbly tuned for athleticism. However, one thing mustn't be forgotten, and that is that the entire reason sports are so celebrated and revered throughout human history is because they are rooted in self-preservation.
It would behoove us to recall the roots of the various sporting events that today we all celebrate with caloric foods and fermented beverages. Today's javelin throw was once our means of hunting game. The human's natural design suited for long distance running is the only reason we are able to catch swift animals that, while quick, lack endurance. Our ability to jump and absorb impacts on our feet allow us to maneuver in a variety of treacherous terrain. There are many ways we can draw parallels between our modern games and the skill-sets that we once needed to simply survive. But of all these abilities, none is more pure than hand-to-hand combat.
Martial Arts, the "Art of Fighting" is as central to human civilization and society as hunting and agriculture. Self-defense is at the core of all modern militaries. At it's best, it is the means by which we preserve not only our lives, but also our territory and property. At it's worst, it is the catalyst for our own self-destruction.
While war and peace may never exist without one another, by and large it is quite seldom that many people find themselves in genuine fight or flight situations. Far more often, martial arts is a tool used for self-development, meditation, and heath maintenance. This was certainly the case for me. Starting from the age of 8, I have dedicated a large portion of my life to the study of the martial arts, and by extension human anatomy. Coupled with my formal education in physics, I have gained a new and enriched appreciation for the human ability to manipulate the forces of nature to their advantage.
In this article, I would like to dedicate some time to diving into the nuances of fighting and self-defense, using the laws of nature to develop a new perspective on this most ancient of traditions. To do this I will analyze the homo sapien design through the lens of the four primary states of matter, from solid to plasma, and connect them with the various ways the body utilizes these states to protect, preserve, and ultimately reproduce itself, with nothing more than its own hands, feet, and mind.
The Human Body
First, I would like to begin with a basic lesson in anatomy. While my formal training in biology and chemistry ended in high school, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I have been able to not just refresh, but enhance, knowledge that I only barely grasped in my youth.
First I'll begin with the fundamentals. The human body is comprised of elements common and abundant throughout the cosmos. Many readers will likely remember the four basic ingredients that make a hairless ape, because they are also our main food groups. These are of course sugars (carbohydrates), fats (lipids), proteins (amino acids), and electrolytes (minerals). However, even though nutritionists organize these chemicals into separate categories, from a purely chemical point of view, all of these compounds are merely different ways of organizing the same ingredients.
Of the 118 known elements on the periodic table of elements it only takes six to manufacture 99% of the human body. These include;
Carbon: The backbone of all organic life (the very term 'organic chemistry' being based solely on molecules that contain carbon). All known life is carbon based, likely due to the inherent ability carbon has to bond with multiple other elements at once. It is the sixth most abundant element in the universe, and makes up 18% of the body by mass.
Hydrogen: If carbon atoms are the bricks, hydrogen are the mortar. Being the most fundamental element, it is of course the most abundant element in the universe, but is only 10% of the body's mass due to its relative lightness. The ability for hydrogen to detach and reattach itself from nearly any atom is what allows the body to regulate all chemistry, and as any good athlete knows, hydration is the key to success.
Nitrogen: The term 'amino acid' is a derivative of amines, which are organic compounds that include nitrogen. Hence, you can thank nitrogen for the existence of your glorious muscles, in addition to your very DNA. Despite its importance however, nitrogen only makes up 3% of the body by mass. Although, it does edge out carbon in cosmic abundance, being the fifth most common element overall.
Phosphorus: Only 1% of the human body, phosphorus is most notable for being a major component of DNA, which warrants its importance. If you have any experience in horticulture, you may recognize the importance of nitrogen and phosphorus enriched soil for plants, and this is the main reason why. Although crucial, phosphorus isn't even in the top 10 most common elements.
Calcium: Slightly more common that phosphorus at 1.5% of the body, it's basically common knowledge why calcium is important. While carbon may be the molecular backbone of living things, calcium is literally what our bones are made of. Not only is calcium used for the bones of vertebrate animals like us, it is also a central ingredient in the shells and exoskeletons of boneless creatures.
Oxygen: Finally, we come to the largest portion (65%) of the human body mass. On the surface this may seem surprising, if one only considers the oxygen we breath for cellular respiration. But if you recall, oxygen is also the core ingredient of water, which makes up around 60% (easy to remember) of the body. Interestingly, oxygen is also the most abundant element in the universe not created during the big bang. Ignoring hydrogen (which is literally just a proton), and helium (which has nary a need to bond with anything) oxygen–and by extension water–is quite common in the universe.
With 21 additional elements, we can organize a functional human being, including all 11 major organ systems, which are in fact mutual to numerous species. With this basic background, we can now begin to piece together how we can transform these ingredients from a mere man, to a true warrior.
First State: Solid
Not surprisingly, very little of the human body is solidified. This may seem like a disadvantage in combat, especially when humans anatomy is compared to the various weaponry found in the animal kingdom. While humans have the obvious basic tools of tooth and nail, they hardly compete with the fangs, claws, horns and stingers utilized by our animal cousins.
I doubt many would contend that the human variations of these traits are best left to grooming and eating rather than fighting. That said, in a real life-or-death situation, all tools should be utilized. While we're no crocodiles, human bite strength is enough to slice carrots (which have the same durability as human fingers). In addition, fingernails may not be ideal for lacerating skin, they are perfectly effective at damaging sensitive and critical areas like the eyes.
Our bones, on the other hand, are quite remarkable. Pound for pound, human bones are stronger than steel, and nearly 4x as durable as concrete. By being both light and durable, human bone functions as an effective scaffolding, a dependable shield for vital organs, as well as a potentially lethal blunt weapon. However, just relying on natural human durability is often not enough, because your opponent has the same tools at their disposal as you do.
This is where the specialized mechanics of martial arts plays a vital role; specifically with stance and body alignment. For the lower half of the body, stances position yourself to remain stable while blocking and striking, and depending on the direction you're facing, you'll align your feet and knees accordingly. In addition, one-legged stances (i.e. pivoting your foot away from your target) are essential if you plan on kicking an opponent. Body alignment refers to all the nuances of positioning yourself in such a way that your defense remains firm, and your strikes remain efficient.
Common examples I would demonstrate to students included the forearm block, and how it was critical to have your elbow at close to 60 degrees angle, and to aim your forearm either at or away from the opponent, but never perpendicular. Even subtle things, like placing your thumbs outside of your palm when punching, can be the difference between a critical blow, and you breaking your hand.
Second State: Liquid
As stated, humans are primarily liquid-based creatures. Bruce Lee's old philosophy to "Be like water" is, therefore, deceptively simple. It is only in our minds that we become rigid. Fluidity is our organic state of being. Nearly two thirds of the body is water. The same substance that falls from the sky and flows through the rivers, courses through each and every cell of all living organisms. Hence, mastering the natural flow of our body is essential to proper self-defense.
The very first thing that I learned as an athlete was the importance of adequate hydration. Water serves two distinct but interwoven functions within the body; one structural and one chemical. For one, water is essentially the substance of all living cells. I have often said that life (on Earth at least) is essentially what happened when water put on a suit of carbon and began walking around. The second function of water, and the reason it acts as a catalyst for life, is because of it's diversity as a chemical. It can act both as an acid or a base (it can give or receive hydrogen) depending on the environment, and since both hydrogen and oxygen are essential elements in organic compounds, water easily reacts with the various complex proteins and lipids within cells. This also makes it easy for water to carry away the various waste products our cells produce through their daily function. The reason we need to stay hydrated is because we lose water through our waste and through sweat, which evaporates from our skin as a means of regulating temperature.
In a more specific sense, there is another liquid that is critical to optimal performance: blood. While it does contain iron, human blood too is 90% water. As many of us learn in basic anatomy, the hemoglobin in blood is what carries the oxygen our cells need for respiration. Without adequate bloodflow, it is impossible for our body to function. Therefore having proper circulation is essential for any fighter. This can be done through regular stretching, including yoga, as well as proper diet. A common problem in developed nations is the accumulation of fat within the arteries and veins, as well as salt that retains moisture. These factors increase the pressure put on blood vessels, and therefore taxes the heart more. Even a thin person can have unhealthy blood pressure, if they aren't careful.
In an increasingly modern and automated society, it has become more important than ever for us as liquid organisms to not become like stagnant water. Running water never becomes stale, and so if one wants to utilize their body to the fullest extent, one must learn to loosen up and relax during combat. Tension leads to blockage, and that hinders flexibility. You must be able to adapt to any situation. Be water, my friend.
Third State: Gas
While we touched on oxygen prior, it's useful to elaborate on the power of oxygen within the human body. Like all animals, human cells conduct respiration according to the formula:
Where glucose (sugar) reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water, which allows for the creation of Adenosine Triphosphate (derived from adenine, one of the bases in DNA, which is then attached to 3 phosphorus atoms, hence the 'tri'). ATP of course is the molecule which stores energy in its third phosphate bond that is then used to drive the cellular machinery that allows us to survive. In this way oxygen plays a direct role in our everyday lives to every capacity, eventually coming out of the body, with the addition of an added carbon molecule. The lungs are the transit station between these two chemicals. Essentially, oxygen goes in, bonds with the carbon inside of us, and is expelled again with that carbon attached.
Incidentally, if you want to lose weight, the way that you do it is through your breath. I was amazed to learn that the majority of weight loss doesn't come through sweat, nor waste, but in fact the very air we exhale. Indeed, fat stores in the body break down into smaller glucose molecules, which can then be used for respiration, and that converted carbon then leaves the body as carbon dioxide. Remarkable!
For any athlete, there is no doubt that proper breathing is a nonnegotiable for high performance. Martial arts however takes this a step further through the practice of mediation. A key in centering oneself during mediation is to focus on nothing but one's own breath. This calms the mind and helps one think as clearly as possible. When the mind is sharp and focused, so too are its blocks and strikes.
A fighter can even manipulate their breath to create greater power. By yelling in a controlled and compressed manner, a warrior can generate far more energy than they could ever hone while silent. (In Korean styles, we would refer to this as a 'ki-hap'. In colloquial common terms one might recognize the equivalent 'hi-yah' from Japanese Karate).
One seldom discussed aspect of this breathing technique is useful to all, regardless of whether they are a fighter or not. In today's hectic modern society where stress runs high and fumes run short, it can be useful to remember that taking a tactical breath (5 seconds in, 5 seconds out), can reduce one's anger, delusion, and sorrow tremendously. After all, it's not just your muscles that need to breath. Perhaps most important of all body functions is the nervous system.
Fourth State: Plasma
Unlike the plasma in our blood, true atomic plasma is essentially non-existent in the human body. The reason for this is likely quite obvious to anyone with an elementary physics education; in order to detach electrons from the nucleus of the atom, large amounts of energy are necessary. Enough energy in fact, that it would rip any living cell apart. Most often this energy comes in the form of radiation such as ultraviolet, x-ray or gamma light, which anyone who has experienced a sunburn or survived a nuclear blast knows to be dangerous.
Normally, the matter we interact with is electrically neutral, as all of the electrons are balanced by the protons. However, when these subatomic particles are separated, the electrical forces that are normally neutralized are able to be exerted. And these forces are nothing to scoff at. In comparison to the force of gravity, electromagnetism is a billion, billion, billion, BILLION (10^36) times stronger. True plasma like this is only really found in the universe within stars like the Sun. But even though there is no plasma within us like a star, electrically charged atoms, known as ions, are located within the body, and allow living organisms to harness this immense power, most notably in the nervous system.
While ions are utilized in many of the body's activities (chemistry is essentially the study of how molecules swap electrons, and moving charge is the definition of current), most of these functions are autonomic. When it comes to martial arts, the closest we can get to harnessing our innate electricity is via the larger nervous system. The various neural and glial cells that comprise this system span the entire body, and operate through what is known as the 'sodium potassium pump'. This need for sodium is one reason we crave and revere salt in our food. Salt is how we think!
This remarkable system of proteins maintains an electrical charge which results in a potential of -70 millivolts (mV). When your nerves are opened, positive sodium ions flood into the cell, generating current that flows from one neuron to the next, creating the signals that result in everything we think, say, and do. These valves can be opened multiple ways, including mechanically (getting touched), chemically (through hormones and enzymes), or electrically, when the voltage of the cell reaches -55mV. This is the critical point when a signal gets transferred through the cell.
The mind registers a spectrum of neural frequencies. Low frequencies are interpreted as delicate movements, as used in Tai Chi, Hapkido, or Judo. These are movements that flow and redirect your opponents energy in such a way that you turn their attack against them. High frequency impulses are expressed as rapid and tense motions. These are the classic strikes and grapples found in styles such as Katate, Kung Fu, Taekwondo, and Jui-Jujitsu. One should be mindful to train the nerves to communicate within as many frequencies as possible, through repetition, to be best prepared for any situation that may arise.
It should be emphasized that "nerves" does not merely mean the brain in our skulls. Your nervous system courses throughout your entire body. Pulsating electricity coursing throughout every fiber of your being. In fact, while the largest clump of nerves in the body is the brain, a close contender is the digestive system. Nearly 90% of the nerves that communicate between your brain and your internal organs connect to the gut. It is actually a matter of truth that your 'gut instincts' are founded on the same impulses that lead to complex thoughts. This is why it is not only essential for a martial artist to maintain a proper diet, but that they also listen to their bodies and manage their cravings.
So, are stomachs a way to feed our brain, or is our brain a clever way to find food for the stomach? Think it over during lunch.
Fundamentally, all things visible are nothing more than positive charges (protons) and negative charges (electrons) , dancing in harmony with one another. Harnessing this flow allows the mind to function properly.
The human body is a divine and nuanced form. It synthesizes all of the fundamental components of matter and energy, and focuses them into our physical form. This is true for all of us, and this is why I consider martial arts to be the universal sport accessible to all people, despite any perceived disabilities. While it can certainly have military application, I think there is a reason for the emphasis of 'Art' in the title. In many ways the human body is itself a work of art, and harmonizing with it in on a cellular, molecular, and atomic, and spiritual level provides a sense of unity unlike any other I know.