Martial arts enthusiast — and scientist — breaks down the physics of fighting

Alum Jason Thalken uses his head to help fighters sharpen their skills

March 20, 2017 Michelle Boston

In the mid-1990s, actor and kung fu legend Jackie Chan starred in his American breakout film Rumble in the Bronx. The movie nimbly mixed comedy with tightly choreographed martial arts sequences. Jason Thalken PhD ’06, a teen at the time of the film’s release, was hooked.

“I went to see that movie in the theater something like seven times,” he said. “I really liked Jackie Chan because he wasn’t trying to be a superhero. And at the end of his movies, he would show all the outtakes from filming and let you know how real things were — or weren’t.”

Films like Chan’s inspired Thalken, who had been taking taekwondo classes. Over the years, he began studying other fighting styles to broaden his abilities: kenpo, judo, wushu, muay thai, eskrima — the list goes on.

From physicist to published author

In addition to the discipline and physical exercise, martial arts appealed to his technical mind. Thalken, who earned his doctorate in physics from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 2006, began thinking about the ways that skills such as punching and kicking could be improved if fighters better understood their scientific properties.

He wrote a few chapters explaining how fighters could hone their techniques by understanding energy, momentum and the center of mass, and sent them off for consideration to a publisher of martial arts books. The publisher came back to him with a note asking for a completed manuscript. Fight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial Arts was published in 2015.

“I know there are lots of people who have different stories about publishing and how it can be really, really hard,” Thalken said. “In my case, it was relatively easy because it’s a niche subject and there had been a desire for something to exist for a long time.”

He’s currently working on two new scientific martial arts publications — a deep dive into the science of punching and a look at the scientific study of martial arts.

From physics to finance and tech

Though it may be surprising, a background in physics often leads students to careers in the financial or technology industries. Studying mathematics to solve real-world problems lends itself to building computer models for predicting financial markets, sales patterns and other areas of interest to those industries. Thalken, whose doctoral research focused on optimization algorithms — the mathematical functions that make sense of raw data — currently works as a senior data scientist for Amazon in Seattle, Wash.

You hire a physicist when you need to develop something new and explore the unknown.

Jason Thalken

“You find physicists get recruited into an area every time it’s new and evolving,” Thalken explained. “You hire a physicist when you need to develop something new and explore the unknown.”

He saw that firsthand when he was a newly minted PhD. Thalken went to work for a well-known mortgage lender developing prediction models right before the housing market crashed. Executives at the company who had been there for 20 years or more were coming to him asking him to help them understand what exactly was going on.

“It was interesting because I had only been there for six months,” Thalken said. The answer, they hoped, was in the data. Unfortunately, the situation turned out to be much more complicated.

A scientist from the get-go

However, it was that element of finding answers based on an established set of scientific principles that originally drew Thalken to science.

“I knew I wanted to be involved in the sciences since I was a boy,” he said. “I found myself drawn to physics. For me, I really like the fact that the authority of what’s true and what’s not comes not from what’s said in a classroom, but the real world.”

Thalken, who triple-majored in physics, mathematics and philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, has taken his love of physics a step further than most, making it a permanent part of his body. He has tattoos of key scientific elements, including Maxwell’s equations, which represent the fundamentals of electricity and magnetism; the Schrödinger equation, describing quantum mechanical behavior; pi up to 51 digits; and the periodic table of elements across his back, among others.

“I wanted something that would also identify me as a physicist,” he said.

Sharing what he’s learned

Thalken has returned to campus on a couple of occasions to share his professional insight with students in the physics and astronomy department. Students, he noted, often want advice on the transition from academe to the business world. Because new careers that use physics are always evolving, he suggests that they broaden the scope of their goals.

“People will want a particular job and they’re studying for exactly that, but then two or three years later, it might not even be a thing anymore,” Thalken said.

“My advice is to do what interests you,” he added. “I mean, do what’s hard, something that pushes and expands you, but don’t limit yourself when it comes to opportunities.”