July 10, 2012
A Really, Really Fast Ball
Contrary to some's (i.e., mine) beliefs, the baseball world did not pause these last two weeks while I went on vacation and navigated a move. It's a shocking thing to learn that one is not the center of the universe. That said, you can expect a few quick looks at some interesting goings-on from the last two weeks over the next couple of days. The first is a piece of brilliance making its way around the internet this morning from the genius minds of xkcd (who you might remember from "The Problem with Sabermetricians")...
Randall Munroe, the artist behind xkcd, applied his mathematical mind to the one question we've all wondered: What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?
As you might imagine, the answer to the question is something much more fascinating than "It arrives in the catcher's mitt really, really fast":
The constant fusion at the front of the ball pushes back on it, slowing it down, as if the ball were a rocket flying tail-first while firing its engines. Unfortunately, the ball is going so fast that even the tremendous force from this ongoing thermonuclear explosion barely slows it down at all. It does, however, start to eat away at the surface, blasting tiny particulate fragments of the ball in all directions. These fragments are going so fast that when they hit air molecules, they trigger two or three more rounds of fusion.
It goes on from there and is worth a read, even if you don't like math. Some really outlandish things happen at the extremes of physics which would make a baseball game quite interesting. The rule 6.08(b) interpretation is a nice touch.
For those who did read it (and are scientifically-minded), I have a question. All of the effects that Randall describes in his scenario seem to be based on the ball colliding with air molecules. What would happen if this "fastball" were tossed in a vacuum? Would we finally be able to see the near-lightspeed baseball game we've all been dreaming about since we were kids? If so, I know one person who might have a leg-up over the rest of us: Satoshi Furukawa.