Monday, November 10, 2008

Sporting sciences

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sports, science

Yes, folks, the results are in: a curveball really curves...a little. The fact is, most pitches curve, in direct proportion to the rate of rotation. The wonder is that there was ever any controversy over baseballs that don't follow purely ballistic paths. They really do interact with the air.

Anyone who has ever watched a game of ping-pong in which two good players put lots of "English" on the ball, knows that a spinning ball curves in the direction that the spin is "backward". In other words, if you slice a ping-pong ball on the right side, so its spin as viewed from above is counter-clockwise, its will curve to your left. The only ball that might not curve would be a "gyroball", with a spiral spin like a well-thrown football...except proponents of the gyboball claim it curves more than all the others. Maybe.

In Why a Curveball Curves: the Incredible Science of Sports, editor Frank Vizard and the writers of Popular Mechanics magazine demystify and elaborate the science behind phenomena in fourteen sports, from baseball, football (both kinds) and golf to swimming, skiing and boxing. Want to know why a hockey puck is called a "puck"? It just may have something to do with Shakespeare. Does "heading" a soccer ball scramble a player's brains? Not nearly as much as "heading" an opponent's head! There just might be helmets in soccer's future...

In the opening chapter on Training, the focus turns to doping, including a section outlining the ten greatest illegal doping scandals. The oldest is still the most famous: The East Germans proved that if you give a woman enough steroids, you turn her into a man with a uterus (as far as sports performance is concerned).

If you give it a little thought, it is no surprise to find that the greatest asset of a hockey goalie is the Eyes. You can't stop the puck if you can't see it, and when you can't see it, you do see what the other players are doing, and can anticipate it anyway. On further thought, I find myself surprised that more attention wasn't given to sight. But it is kinda like air. How many sports can be performed blindfolded or in total darkness? Only mano-a-mano grappling, judo and wrestling for example, come to mind. Of course, there could be no "spectators" then, could there?

A major section of the Swimming chapter is devoted to the newer suits, whether caps help or not, and other innovations aimed at putting more water behind a swimmer, ever faster. We find that the old attitude of keeping the head up to "hydroplane" would not be effective until a speed of 35 mph (~55 kph), so keeping the head down and the hips up is the better strategy...until a swimmer of the future achieves true hydroplane speed!

And what about that famous gyroball? To date, only two hurlers claim to be able to throw one. Whether it curves in a flat plane (rather than a sinking one), as advertised, isn't yet established. But to my mind, it ought to "carry" the way a spiral throw in football does, having less effective drag and being more stable in flight.

To some folks, all this extra knowledge might ruin things. But being a science nut, I find it helps. I am much less of a sports fan than the average guy, so knowing more about how things work just might help me enjoy sports-watching more.

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