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Physics professor presents research on Viking Chess at national conference

Kubb sets are commonly made from the wood of the European ash, white ash, red oak or yellow pine.
Kubb sets are commonly made from the wood of the European ash, white ash, red oak or yellow pine.
Photo courtesy of Old Time Games, Inc.

Professor Erick Agrimson won’t use the Queen’s Gambit or the Sicilian Defense when he presents research on Viking Chess at the national conference of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) in August. Instead, he will demonstrate the physical prowess of a game with Scandinavian roots that is altogether a different animal.

Agrimson is conducting research on the game of Kubb (pronounced koob), a game he describes as a cross between bowling, horseshoes and 8-ball. The game is similar to Finnish skittles and Bunnock, and it is played in the U.S. national championships held in Eau Claire, Wisc., and the world championships held in Gotland, Sweden.

What is Kubb?

Kubb is a lawn game played between at least two people with the goal of knocking over the opposing team’s kubbs as well as the opposing team’s king. Known as Viking Chess for its Nordic roots, the game is played with large wooden blocks (or kubbs) and wooden batons that are thrown underhand to spin end-over-end.

“The word kubb does come out of ‘vedkubbar,’ which means woodblock,” says Agrimson. “The history of the game supposedly comes from the island of Gotland, off the coast of Sweden.”

Kubb has reportedly been played for over 1,000 years, and many contend that it dates back to the Viking Age, though that is disputed. Whatever its origins, the game is played with sets consisting of four corner stakes, six batons or clubs, 10 kubbs and one king between both teams. Often, Kubb sets are homemade, and the pieces can be fashioned from the wood of the European ash, white ash, yellow pine or red oak tree.

The physics of Kubb

Agrimson first learned of the game through a Kubb competitor in his family. This competitor posed a question asking if the type of wood used in making a Kubb set would change the outcome of any throw.

With the support of his colleagues at St. Kate’s — Terry Flower, Ph.D., and Dan O’Loughlin, Ph.D. — Agrimson pursued the question. He set out to determine the density of each type of wood that could be used in Kubb sets and the mass differential between each of the pieces, in order to find the moment of inertia for any baton, or pinnar, that would be commonly thrown in a Kubb championship. All with the goal of presenting his results to colleagues in physics education at the national conference of the AAPT.

“It’s not your standard research project,” says Agrimson, though he adds that’s what gives the project its appeal. “These are primarily people who are interested in teaching physics and trying to come up with new ways to present lessons to students. Because I teach physics for the health sciences, I’m always looking for something new to present in my course.”

Rising to the challenge

Agrimson says he often encounters students in his courses who have an interest in sports. In the past, he has taught students from the swimming and diving team, as well as students involved in volleyball, basketball and hockey. After drawing so many correlations to sports in his physics classes, the Physics of Sports category at the national conference seemed like a perfect fit for Agrimson’s next presentation.    

Drawing up the physics of Viking Chess has been about as complex for Agrimson as the game of chess itself, however. Kubb not only holds a number of physical variables, but it also comes with a highly debated history, with a different set of rules for each of the Scandinavian nations where it is played.

Agrimson is studying the game using the Norwegian rules for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, this set of rules allows him to conduct his research on a grass field, as opposed to clay or sand. Agrimson points out that the grass field does leave him with a significant coefficient of friction, and the rules he has chosen to follow are less documented, giving the professor a real challenge.

He is also conducting his research assuming a number of variables would remain the same, including the length and diameter of the pinnar and the muscle mechanics of the throw — which admittedly is a big assumption.

“I did a calculation and there is a difference in the moment of the inertia,” said Agrimson. “Different wooden pinnars are going to rotate at a different moment of inertia and that will affect potentially how they fly through the air, and it has to do with their mass.”

While the answers in Agrimson’s research could be the key to winning a Kubb championship, he has many more research questions that he will not have time to address before the national conference. Still, Agrimson plans to attach an accelerometer to his pinnars and calculate the acceleration needed to knock over a kubb, and he even hopes to delve more deeply into the history of the game.

The national scene

Agrimson will present his research at the national conference of the American Association of Physics Teachers in Omaha, Nebraska, during a session at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 1.

While Agrimson’s presentation is categorized under the Physics of Sports, it will be nested in an impressive array of physics sessions, including astronomical image processing, computational molecular biophysics, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics, as well as physics education and interdisciplinary topics.

In prior years, both students and faculty have represented St. Catherine University in presentations at the conference. Some of Agrimson’s former topics have included high altitude ballooning and the physics of sonography.

July 29, 2011 by Melissa Kaelin

See also: Athletics, Faculty, Liberal Arts, STEM