With the Olympics just finishing up, I was excited to see the following link posted on twitter entitled: Significant Digits and Pool Tolerances are Why There are So Many Ties in Swimming. You see in my attempt to connect chemistry content to a real world application, I had used a scenario in an old YouTube video I had created in 2012, showing Olympic swimmers and NASCAR drivers and the importance of measuring devices and their relationship to significant digits.
So in the video, whether it was NASCAR drivers getting the pole position by only 6 one thousandths of a second over the next driver or seeing Michael Phelps edge out Milorad Cavic by one one hundredth of a second to take the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, then I was able to explain to my students the importance of accuracy in measuring devices and then link that to the use of significant digits. However, it never dawned on me why NASCAR could measure to the 0.001 second and why in Olympic swimming events they only measured to the 0.01 second. So, when I saw this article regarding the tolerance level of the engineering of pools then it really became clear to me why there is this difference and what a great example this is. For a quick explanation, it comes down to the tolerance level of construction where in a pool, swimmers use different lanes that are just slightly different lengths, where in NASCAR, the drivers all use the same track. It simply would be too expensive to obtain a tolerance level within a pool that has all the lanes that are exactly the same length. Here is the link to the article giving the full description. Significant Digits and Pool Tolerances are Why There are So Many Ties in Swimming. I hope you will be able to ask your students this question and share these examples and see what thoughts they have regarding the differences in timing. I have many swimmers in my classes and look forward to getting their thoughts on this.