2008
07.26

Thinkin’ Physics

Recently Joe Posnanski discussed our tendency to exalt the greatness of an individual to the point that people forget how great the person’s achievements actually are. Whereas Posnanski wrote about Joe DiMaggio as overrated to the point of underrated, as I read a biography of Albert Einstein, I am convinced Einstein also falls into this category.

Everyone knows Einstein was smart. But his sheer genius has been so accepted that I really think people have forgotten how smart he really was. Einstein’s view of the universe completely flipped conventional wisdom. He did nothing less than make Nobel prize winners question their notions of reality*.

(Sorry about that. I couldn’t resist the Clutch reference.)

Anyway, although I’m only about a quarter through the 800-page biography, I’ve come to the conclusion that Einstein was smarter, or perhaps more intuitive, than I thought.

That said, my mind has started wandering a bit as I have been reading. Especially after I read about Einstein’s theory of energy, specifically how the mass of an object increases as its motion nears the speed of light (the famous E=MC2). Of course, being inquisitive, I have a few questions:

(Note: For those wondering if this post was going have anything to do with sports, here is your smooth segue.)

- Is it humanly possible to throw a ball have it become heavier?

- Although announcers and baseball pundits like to call certain sinking fastballs “heavy”, are they really? Or is their “heaviness” just a figure of speech to explain their rotation or the effect of the backspin and other aerodynamic factors?

(By the way, for a great book on basic baseball physics, to include what makes a knuckleball “flutter”, check out Robert K. Adair’s “The Physics of Baseball“. Don’t be scared. It’s less than 200 pages.)

- How fast would a ball have to go to shatter the sweet spot of a bat? What about an aluminum bat? What about on the moon, or any other place with less gravity than Earth?

- On a related note, would a Sidd Finch fastball (168 mph) break a bat closer to the sweet spot? Or does it depend more on the spin and the angle of the swing?

Now I’ll admit, those probably aren’t the most complex baseball-related physics problems. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were actually quite easy. And I know they have little to do with Einstein. But I am still curious.

So if there are any physicists out there, feel free to drop some knowledge in the comments.

Oh yeah, and everyone should check out this link: The Physics of Baseball. There is some really good stuff on there. Did you know the University of Illinois actually offered a freshman-level course on baseball physics?

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  1. On the question of “humanly possible” to increase weight on a throw I don’t think so. I don’t think there is the human ability to create enough velocity to increase weight.

    As for “heavy” balls. (hehe…hehe) I think it has more to do with the behavior of the ball when its rotation makes it susceptible to the Magnus Effect, which is where the rotation of an object moves air in a fashion that increased air pressure on one side steers the ball in a different direction. (A fastball spins backwards and builds air pressure on the bottom of the ball. As a ball pulls the air over the top of it as it spins it intercepts the air moving the other direction underneath it to create a high pressure pocket under the ball and essentially create lift. That is why a hard, 4 seamer thrown over the top is going to go farther. It isn’t just velocity. It also dictates [to some extent] direction and extremity of break when throwing the deuce or a slider.) This has been a consideration for some time when it comes to the ejection of a round object (round canonballs). Anyway, as the ball decelerates the high pressure area has more impact on the direction of the ball (breaking). This movement has nothing to do with the ball becoming heavier, and has everything to do with the weight of the ball and its speed in relation to the higher pressure areas its spin creates. This is how I understand it, but I could always be wrong. I have no advanced science education outside of what I study for recreation.

  2. Thanks for the insight Bruce. Adair’s book has a lot of similar insight, but unfortunately it has been a while since I read it. I might have to brush up on my studies.

  3. Time for a little bit of truth. About 15 years ago paintball was in its infancy as a mainstream recreation. Several of my good two of my good friends and I were getting into it. We went around and played at a lot of different places. Believe it or not, and you are completely within your rights not to, we were very very good at stalking and shooting people with paintball guns. We were good enough that people started calling us asking for our consultation on course design and equipment. In the end, we had a different philosophy on what the sport should be and in the end we gave it up as a recreation. The point is that in the summer(ish) of 1997 we had just cleaned up a game in a town about an hour from our home. It wasn’t even funny. The reasons we won had nothing to do with the course or the equipment and everything to do with the way we think. Still, after the game we held court with several strangers covered in our paint (we preferred white ProBall, which was thick like wax and looked like people were covered in birdshit) asking us questions. I got to talking about range, which is always an issue in any sport, and these guys were talking about making rifled barrels to improve paintball range. I told them that was a mistake because rifling in the barrel would cut the thin wall of the paintball. I said that the real trick would be spin, and that the smart move was looking into Napoleonic cannon technology. I then related a story about how a gunsmith made a cannon with a slightly curved barrel that spun the ball on its way out. It hadn’t worked because when it was fired the ball, being subject to the coefficient of expansion, would change shape and not roll out of the barrel properly. About two years later a sewing machine company that was moonlighting as a paintball gun manufacturer named Tippmann was a mediocre company on the bottom side of the game. They came out with the Flatline Barrel System and attached it to their new gun design. Guess what it was. It changed their position in the paintball world and they ended up selling out to an investment company for big bucks. I am not saying they stole my idea, but the three guys I mentioned were using Tippmanns and I haven’t forgotten it. Anyway, reading books about history taught me what the the Magnus Effect was, and some son of a bitch made a million dollars off of it. Anyway…fuck em.