I love a baseball post!

My computational physics professor in college was a baseball fanatic, and insisted on pushing that obsession onto his students. So for most of the semester we wrote algorithms that would map the path of a baseball pitch, based on variables like the angle of release, the speed and the spin of the ball. We demonstrated that very small changes in any of these variables can drastically change where the ball ends up.

That was some years ago, and these days I couldn’t program my way out of a paper bag, but I find it interesting that my professor was not the only scientist trying to break down the game of baseball. Studies on the physics and science of baseball pop up all the time, and a new one out from Brown University actually found it helpful to temporarily suspend the laws of physics to get the answer they were looking for.

Take this new study that…wow, HANG ON. Can I just point you to the picture of the owl in 3D glasses? Also the photoshopped picture of the owl participating in a scientific experiment? These images are from a totally different study in the Journal of Vision, but they were a little too amazing not to share. The paper that goes with these images was very dense – I think it drew some parallels between how humans and owls see in stereo. I must admit my subscription to the journal of vision ran out when I never got one to begin with, but they have an amazing looking table of contents.

Back to physics! A paper published in the December 14 edition of JoV presents a very creative way of testing theories about how baseball players manage to catch fly balls. There are a few theories floating around about how this is achieved, and the researchers tried to rule out the idea that baseball players catch balls by predicting their physical trajectory. So either through experience or intrinsic physics knowledge, players recognize the path of a falling object subject to Earth’s gravity.

But this theory seems to have been invalidated by the new study. They put ball players in a virtual system where fly balls can totally disobey the rules of physics – and the players still seemed to have about the same luck catching them.

Rather than predicting the path of the ball, the players move in such a way that the ball appears not to move relative to them. If the ball is moving fast, they need to back up. If it’s moving slow, they need to move forward. This seems to go along with a study done earlier in 2009 which showed that players who tried to pick the spot where a fly ball would land, but who had to remain stationary, could not pick the drop spot quite as well as if they were able to move. The ability to align one’s movement with the movement of the ball apparently makes a big difference.
The success of this theory relies on the idea that the key to catching a fly ball is to keep your eye on it. However, as many online sources point out, there are a handful of famous baseball players who could somehow catch fly balls without looking at them – that is, they could make great catches over the shoulder, without being able to see exactly where the ball was. While this happens to many players, it happens consistently with only a few. Perhaps they have a particularly strong innate ability to judge the motion of the ball.

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