Another review from my GEnie days

The Physics of Baseball

Robert K. Adair

Reviewed by Michael J. Mehl

In 1987, Bart Giamatti, who was then President of the National League, appointed Robert Adair, Sterling Professor of Physics at Yale, to the new post of "Physicist to the National League". His job was to research several of the long standing arguments in baseball: e.g. why does a curve ball break?, does corking a bat help?, and can you hit more home runs on a humid day?

This book answers those questions and more. If you have any interest in the actual mechanics of baseball, go out and find it. Even if you don't know the rational behind the infield fly rule, this is interesting on several levels.

The first level is that indicated in the title. The physics of baseball is indeed fascinating. To answer the first question, curve balls break because pitchers throw the ball in the 50-100 mile per hour range. This, interestingly enough, is the region of the "drag crisis", where the flow of air around the ball changes from smooth, laminar flow to turbulent flow. In this region, the "drag coefficient" of the ball actually goes down, meaning that drag is less than you would expect. Forces on opposite sides of a spinning baseball are very different, leading to the break of a curve ball.

On the second level, this book makes you appreciate how much physics humans can perform in our everyday lives. To hit a 90 mph fast ball out of the park, for example, Frank Thomas has 0.4 seconds to see the ball, determine its trajectory, figure out where to swing the bat, and hit the ball in precisely the right spot (with about a +/- 1/4 inch margin of error), all while having 50,000 people screaming in his ears, and while remembering that he was decked the last time at bat. And Thomas hits a home run once in every 15 at bats. Humans are marvelous analog computers.

On the third level, this book shows how a scientist works in the real world. F = ma is a nice equation, but there are so many uncertainties. How much drag is there on the ball? Does the bat soak up much energy when the ball is hit? Do the seams on the ball make a difference? Answers to these, and many other questions, are uncertain at best. Faced with such a situation, the physicist makes approximations, does some calculations, and does a reality check, comparing the results with the real world. For example, if a calculation shows that the maximum distance a player can hit a fast ball is 1000 feet, then the model is wrong, since no one has ever come close to that distance. The process is never as cut and dried as text books, even at the graduate school level, lead you to believe. This demonstration of the thought process that go on every day in the sciences.

If you absolutely hate baseball, this is not your book. On the other hand, if you've every wondered what happens when Charlie Hough throws a knuckler, or wanted to know how you'd begin to find out, this book is the place to start.

Author:     Robert K. Adair
Title:      The Physics of Baseball
Publisher:  HarperPerennial (a division of HarperCollins), New York, 1990
ISBN:       ISBN 0-06-096461-8
List Price: $9.00

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© 1996 by Michael J. Mehl


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