Weekend before last, the nation enjoyed that great American institution, the Super Bowl, which our friend Kasey observed by getting her own minor concussion during a unscheduled encounter with a marble breakfast bar. In fact, she wasn’t even watching the game, but lacing up her shoes to hike Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon. Her injury, however is one that football players both young and old risk when they take to the field.

Responding to this yearly outburst of head-bashing, Time Magazine ran a short article titled “The Simple Way to Make Football Safer,” citing a change in helmet design as the key. The article included a video interview with Ainissa Ramirez, co-author of Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game. Ramirez and co-author Allen St. John looked at (among others) woodpeckers and rams for Nature’s insights into how to survive a concussion.  (About time … ) But these strategies have been known for a while:

The shock of even a relatively small collision can damage not just your iPad but your brain, car bodies, aircraft flight recorders, and space vehicles. A woodpecker, however, can whack his head against a tree up to twenty-two times per second and twelve thousand times per day. He strikes with a massive force of twelve hundred grams of deceleration (scientific term), while humans get concussions at just one hundred grams of deceleration. How does he avoid the monster headaches, detached retinas, and brain injury that humans would suffer from just one such impact? First, he has a supertough yet elastic beak and “spongelike” bones to absorb shock. He also has purpose-built, thick muscles and vibration-suppressing spinal fluid. His eyelids act as “seat belts” to protect his retinas. How do we know all this? Researchers have been studying the woodpecker since the mid-1970s. Yubo Fan, a bioengineer at Beijing’s Beihang University; Lorna Gibson of MIT; and researchers Sang-Hee Yoon and Sungmin Park of the University of California, Berkeley have all written scientific papers on the biomechanics and potential of learning from woodpeckers. Sang-Hee Yoon and Sungmin Park have now built woodpecker-inspired biomimetic shock absorbers that can withstand the sixty-thousand-gram impact from a bullet—sixty times the shock resistance of today’s advanced aircraft black boxes, which currently can only handle one thousand grams of impact. As you can imagine, helmet makers, such as Riddell, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense are looking at adapting the technology to helmets as well as other applications.

(Excerpted from The Shark’s Paintbrush, copyright Jay Harman. All rights reserved.)

I’m delighted that solutions for unnecessary concussions are getting more press—now let’s follow-up with some truly protective helmets.