Book Review For: “Fight Like a Physicist”. Part 1


When I first saw “Fight Like a Physicist” by Jason Thalken, on the Chapters book shelf I have to admit that I thought it was going to be the same old thing. Over the years there have been more than a few books that purported to use “science” to explain the mysteries of why the Martial Arts were so effective or even “deadly”. Considering that these books were generally written by “traditional” martial artists whose methods basically fell apart when put under the extreme pressures of the NHB/MMA arena and were therefore tested and observed to be fundamentally ineffective; I have, consequently, always found that kind of “science” highly suspect.

For example, let me pull an oldie but a goodie right off my own book shelf. Ah yes, here it is “Deadly Karate Blows”, by Brain Adams from 1985. Yes, you read that correctly, “Brain Adams”, but this Brain Adams does not demonstrate how to play guitar but does “tune in” some bad guys using classic karate strikes with greatly exaggerated consequences. What makes this classic example somewhat unique and interesting is that it is less of a “how to” guide but instead, as the subtitle indicates: “The Medical Implications”, a book about the theoretical consequences of being struck with these blows.

As an alternative, to a lot of action photos, it has extensive drawings of human anatomy so you can see the injuries with a kind of “x-ray vision”. In that context the book is quite interesting but it never presents the material as theoretical, but instead as a more or less forgone conclusion that all these catastrophic injuries will easily occur with a simple chop or kick. As per the standards of the day, these conclusions are asserted without any statistical evidence. In fact, these wildly exaggerated claims are made without evidence of any kind. I suppose this is a bit of a relief since we could have been forced to endure page after page of unverifiable anecdotal “evidence”. In other words, tall tales about this guy killing someone with a monkey fist and that guy severing some poor dude’s spinal Column with a side kick. This was the kind of very low standards of scientific evidence and “self-defense” advice we often got back in the 80s and continues to this day as I wrote about in my blog post “The art of Maxim Deficiency”.

What gave this book and the many more like it an air of authority and legitimacy was the use of extensive medical terminology. The author even wrote: “these legends from the past are very intriguing, but unscientific” but his “goal is to try and stimulate a greater interest in the scientific aspect of the art of karate”. A very worthwhile pursuit, one that I can relate to, but his idea of “science” was to provide absolutely no actual evidence to support his claims about the deadliness of basic karate strikes. These identical kinds of strikes are indigenous to Jiu-jitsu as well, by the way, it’s just that no one who as actually used them thinks they are particularly deadly. Therefore, we have to remember that medical terminology or scientific jargon of any kind is not evidence.

Hence, in the past unsupported claims and unfounded opinions could be disguised as “science” by simply using scientific jargon and/or by being asserted by authors that had a few letters after their name. This really only served to obscure the issues and perpetuate myths if there was no kind of actual testing, experimentation or verification being done. People with accomplished academic back grounds and corresponding credentials are a relative rarity in a field like the martial arts and self-defense so their often equally groundless claims would not usually be given the scrutiny that they might have received in other disciplines where higher standards of education are the norm. Hence, we often had writers who were trading in one kind of apparent authoritative titles, like “Sensei” or “Master” for another kind, like “Doctor” or “PHD”. In other words, it is hard to argue with someone using pseudo-scientific jargon or physics formulas that we don’t understand. And I guess that was the point, you were just supposed to take their word for it.

That’s one of the things I like about “Fight like a Physicist”, the author is not saying “I’m a PHD so you should believe whatever I say”, but actually writes “don’t take my word for it”, and goes on to make the same kinds of points that I have been trying to get across with this blog. Namely, that a relatively simple and applied science like “self-defense” or specific elements of the martial arts can and should be tested and any results he gets can be re- tested by other people, including us. That is the more important nature of “science”- that results from testing are observable and repeatable.

Therefore, before I got into the details of the book review I wanted to first give an example (evidence) of how far we have come and how this book raises the standards of the “pseudo-profession” while also being interesting and highly readable. In other words, I wanted to reassure you of what this book is not, in case you have had a long history with disappointing “science” based martial arts publications as I have. This book is definitely not just a collection of misapplied physics formulas trying to prove on paper that methods that don’t work in the real world are so “scientific”-as I feared it might be. No, instead the book was a breath of fresh air and could even be called a new hand book for our “evidence-based” approach to self-defense. The book covers a lot of interesting and informative topics that I will cover in a later post, but for now remember that the truth is out there…