Brit brains solve the riddle of the 'rang

Robin Stummer on the scientist putting the boom in boomerangs
Click to follow
Britons broke the Enigma codes, discovered gravity, came up with the theory of evolution, split the atom and gave the world TV, computers, jet power, bouncing bombs and hovercraft. Now it's time to be proud again, for we've solved one of the last great scientific conundrums: why boomerangs come back.

How did we do it? Forget Nasa-sized budgets and laboratories crammed with white-coated scientists. The honours go to pipe-smoking, tweed jacketed, Morris Minor-driving Dr Robert Reid, the latest in a long line of British boffins whose discoveries originated in the garden shed and on the kitchen table.

For generations, boomerang flight has been a mystery. In their large, non-returning versions, they have been used for thousands of years from Australia to the Arctic as an extremely effective way to fell man and beast. A box of boomerangs was found in Tutankhamun's tomb. In 1987 archaeologists in Poland uncovered what they claimed to be the world's oldest example - a 2ft long, banana-shaped object fashioned from mammoth tusk believed to be 23,000 years old.

However, it would be thousands of years before throwers realised there was something peculiar in the tendency of the smaller, curvy ones to come back. The first paper was published in Dublin in 1832, but it was only in the 1960s that academics began to look closely at the riddle of the returning 'rang.

"I had to give a talk in the late 1960s about aerodynamics," says Dr Reid, 68, a retired lecturer in physics at Leeds University. "My interest in the subject began with an article by a Dane, Felix Hess, that had been published in Scientific American. I found that boomerangs were a very good vehicle for tackling physics and the principles of aerodynamic lift and gyroscopic precession."

Not content with abstract theorising, Reid set about building prototypes from aviation ply and resin, honing and trimming them, then carefully noting changes in the character of their flight. The early 1970s saw a mini-boom in boomerang research which eventually lead to Reid's magnum opus, The Physics of Boomerangs - the British boomerang world's Origin of Species - published in the journal Mathematical Spectrum.

"Many throwers positively resent the intrusion of a scientific explanation, preferring to keep the magic unsullied," he says. "Others assume that any explanation would be complicated and way beyond them. For me, an understanding of why they behave as they do in no way lessens the magic - indeed it heightens it."

So, all set for boomerang-powered space-flight, or boomerang-driven, ecologically-sound cars? Not yet. "There are no practical applications that I know of," says Reid, sadly. "But their flights are magical, beautiful. It's also nice that people make their own. I mean, if golfers made their own clubs I'd have more respect for them."

There is indeed beauty in their flight, as Reid demonstrated on a windy afternoon last week in Roundhay Park, Leeds. "The art of making boomerangs is to keep drag to a minimum," he explained, choosing from his collection of a dozen or so best flyers. "A good throw needs power and accuracy."

There followed a breath-taking display of aerodynamics or, to most of us, throwing. They bounced, they skimmed grass then shot up; they carved out languid, 50-yard arcs, vanished into the blue yonder then reappeared on course for our heads.

As with other British discoveries, we have the theory in our grasp, but trail the rest of the world when it comes to application. In the 1970s, Britain was a world-leader in boomerang throwing competitions. Now, foreigners hold sway. The Germans are especially adept, and have their own magazine, Bumerang Welt - in which are set down the triumphs of Teutonic throwing - and the French aren't far behind, boasting the furthest officially recorded flight - 149 metres out, then back.

Here, a small number of enthusiasts make up the British Boomerang Society. Boomeranging is tipped as a possible exhibition sport in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but UK honours may be a long way off.

For now, we'll just have to be content with knowing how boomerangs work. Part of Reid's explanation is that "For a rigid body spinning about the x axis, rotation about the y axis generates a torque about the z axis, in response to which the system starts to rotate about the z axis..." Oh, go on, just chuck the thing.