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How Baseball Breaks The Laws Of Physics

August 10, 2020

Let’s face it: Science is true. Real science.

It’s not always possible to distinquish real science from fake science. Ancient alchemists promised to turn lead into gold. And some got paid for it.

But, with the benefit of hindsight we know that there is no way a medieval chemist could transmute one element into another. Regardless of how convincing they were.

The same goes for perpetual motion machines. They have existed throughout time. And they are all fake. No question, it’s impossible to get more energy out of system than is put into it. At least from a mechanical system. Because all mechanical systems have to deal with gravity and friction, even if it’s only air friction. And that friction and gravitational force require energy to overcome.

So, science, true science works.

But, there are grey areas. Cold fusion, is a technology that two physicists named Ponds and Fleishman claimed to have figured out out to achieve nuclear fusion at room temperature. No one, including them, were ever able to reproduce their results.

Is cold fusion science? Or science fiction?

We are currently in the middle of a pandemic. And science has lots to do with it.

  • Can we develop a vaccine? Is a coronavirus vaccine even possible?
  • Do masks help to stop the spread, or do they make it worse?
  • Does hydroxychloroquine help stop the virus? Or make it worse?

These are science questions. Questions that should be answerable by science. It’s strange that we don’t have a consensus on these questions. You probably have thoughts on them. Are your answers science? Or science fiction? Or is the other guy believing in fantasies?

Baseball started late this year. We weren’t sure it would start at all. And there’s no guarantee that it will last the entire 60 games they have scheduled.

But, as a baseball fan, I’m just happy to be able to watch the games.

Baseball has a strange connection with physics. For many years baseball broke the laws of physics.

Curveball

Let’s start with the most common broken law of physics. A properly thrown curveball flies in one direction normally obeying the laws of gravity and air resistance. Then, at the crucial moment, the ball “breaks” and suddenly goes in a completely different direction. Often by as much as 6″ left, right or down. (Never up since the law of gravity is still in effect and can’t be broken.)

Michael Jordan abandoned his baseball career partly because he couldn’t hit the curveball.

For years the curveball was described as an optical illusion. Everyone knew that an object in motion couldn’t suddenly change direction without another force acting on it. And then some physicists with high speed cameras discovered baseball.

Not to go into too much science-y stuff but, what the physicists noticed was that a baseball has raised stitches. When a baseball is thrown with sufficent rotating force, the stiches “push the air along with them.” The ball acts as if it’s a perfect sphere. However, once the ball slows down enough, the air in between the stitches starts to interact with the air around it. At that point those raised stitches start to exert drag on the ball. Friction kicks in. And that friction makes the ball curve.

It wasn’t an optical illusion after all. Science is true.

Grounders

I watched a game where a ball was sharply hit through the infield. It hit right in front of the second baseman. It looked like a routine play. But, just as the ball hit, it accelerated. The announcers were not impressed with the fielder.

A ball cannot pick up speed after it leaves the bat. That’s just basic physics.

Was it possible for a ball to go faster after it leaves the bat? Newton’s laws of motion would say no.

Newton’s Three Laws of Motion

  1. Every object moves in a straight line unless acted upon by a force
  2. The acceleration of an object is directly proportional to the net force exerted and inversely proportional to the object’s mass
  3. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction

So, how can a baseball get faster after it’s hit?

Science.

When a baseball leaves the bat it travels in a three dimensional space. It has release angle, a velocity and a direction. With these simple data points we can track it’s expected path and velocity.

But, a baseball also has rotational velocity. (Remember our curveball?) And when the ball interacts with another object, such as the ground, it can translate that rotational energy to directional energy. If the rotational energy is larger than the force due to friction in contact with the ground, that extra energy will either heat up the baseball, or make it go faster.

Can a baseball go faster after it hits the ground?

Yes, it can. How?

Because science. Science is true.

Home Runs

Fans love to watch home runs. There were two hit in tonight’s Mariners game including a grand slam home run by Kyle Seager. The fifth of his career.

The longest home run ever hit is a matter of some debate.

  • In 1987 Joey Meyer hit a ball 587 feet in Denver, Colorado.
  • May 5, 1963 Mickey Mantle was credited with a 734 foot home run in Yankee Stadium
  • In 1926 the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth, hit a ball 650 feet at Wilkes University’s Artillery Park

With as crazy as baseball is about stats, you’d think the longest home run in history would be a matter of settled history. The fact that it’s not is part of the reason I love the game.

But, this is a story about physics. What’s the longest possible home run. You know, according to science. As I mentioned, physicists discovered baseball.

Alan Nathan is a super smart guy who used to teach physics atthe University of Illinois. Fortunately, he also likes baseball. He did a lot of science-y stuff and calculated that the longest possible home run would be 565 feet. That’s well below Mickey Mantle’s top 6 (All of which were measured at over 600 feet.)

Not surprisingly the “perfect” home run would be hit in Denver. The thin air makes the ball fly farther than it does at sea level.

So, who is right? The physicist and his 565 foot record home run? Or the baseball historians?

I don’t know. But, the fact that the real players hit it farther than the physicists say is possible isn’t magic. It isn’t illusion. It true. And therefore it’s science

Because science is true. It works.

Stay safe

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

(c) 2020 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved

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