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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.

After about 70 nanoseconds the ball arrives at home plate. The batter hasn't even seen the pitcher let go of the ball, since the light carrying that information arrives at about the same time the ball does. Collisions with the air have eaten the ball away almost completely, and it is now a bullet-shaped cloud of expanding plasma (mainly carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen) ramming into the air and triggering more fusion as it goes. The shell of x-rays hits the batter first, and a handful of nanoseconds later the debris cloud hits.


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.

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Oleoay
7/10
Next, on Mythbusters...
DaveKavanagh
7/10
In a vacuum, the fusion &c. would have to wait until the ball made contact with the bat/hitter/mitt, but the end result would be just the same, except for a lack of nitrogen in the plasma. By the way, if the hitter could swing at a relativistic speed too, a further by-product would be the promotion of a certain Mariners prospect still in rookie ball.
lgranillo
7/10
Great information, Dave. Thanks! Now I wish I could throw you another hypothetical... like what would happen if the batter could swing the bat at exactly the same speed the ball was traveling, in a vacuum? Would the fusion still take place, or would the matching momentums change it somehow? What if the bat touched the ball for only a split second? Sorry. I just like throwing out hypotheticals.
DaveKavanagh
7/10
Yes, the fusion would still take place, between the sub-atomic particles in the ball and those in the bat (instead of ball and air in the original). Because the bat is a lot heavier than the ball, the amount of energy needed to swing the bat that fast would result in an even bigger explosion.
Oleoay
7/10
I think zero-G would be interesting to ask. How far would the pitcher go backwards before the batted ball reach him?
DaveKavanagh
7/10
Well, the ball, bat, and pitcher (as well as everything else in the stadium and its neighbourhood) will be destroyed by the fusion reaction, so the ball won't actually reach him. As for how fast the pitcher will be travelling prior to disintegration, it depends on how he got the ball up to 0.9c in the first place. Randall seems to imply that the pitcher released it at normal speed and then the ball jumped to relativistic speed, in which case, the pitcher will still be in his follow-through when the blast hits him. If, instead, he managed to generate that much momentum himself (ignoring what effect this would have on his body), his follow-through will be even longer. Finally, if he literally has a cannon for an arm and used this to propel the ball at 0.9c, then the recoil will send him back at just under 2 million mph (assuming the ball weighs 5 ounces and the pitcher 225 pounds), nowhere near fast enough to avoid the blast.
dianagramr
7/10
I love you .... (in a science of baseball geek way).
lgranillo
7/10
Again, great stuff, Dave. Thanks so much.
brownsugar
7/10
Well, I was wrong. I thought that the pitcher would be still alive, only very badly burned and in quite a lot of pain.
padresprof
7/10
The destruction of the stadium, etc. should not surprise anyone given that the pitcher provided the equivalent of a day and a half of America's energy usage in a single pitch.
Oleoay
7/10
"then the recoil will send him back at just under 2 million mph (assuming the ball weighs 5 ounces and the pitcher 225 pounds), nowhere near fast enough to avoid the blast." Classic.
operatic
7/10
Instead of HBP, wouldn't the pitch be called a ball (since the batter would have made no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball in the nanosecond it was visible)? ;)
lgranillo
7/10
Umpire's discretion, right? I've seen plenty of HBPs called when a batter doesn't really move - especially on pitches that arrive really quickly. I bet the ump would appreciate the circumstances here...
Oleoay
7/10
If the pitcher threw faster than the speed of light, might it be a balk since the pitcher released the ball before it appeared he released the ball?
padresprof
7/11
If a pitcher was able to break the light barrier, the balk rule would the least of our concerns. Causality would be violated and now we could know the results of the game before it happened.
Oleoay
7/11
Not necessarily. We'd have to be physically at the game to know that. If we're watching it via live TV tape delay or via the internet, I'd think that the lag would allow real time to "catch up".
Kreylix
7/10
"Randall Munroe, the artist behind xkcd," - "Artist"? Seriously? You mean, "Illustrator and Writer" and occasional Statistician, right? :)
Screamingliner
7/10
Sorry, next comment was a response to this one.
Screamingliner
7/10
Artist? Sure. Take a look at the current comic. http://xkcd.com/1079/ The stick figures are just a convention, not a limitation of the author's skill.
delatopia
7/10
And I thought this was going to be about Bruce Rondon hitting 102 on the gun.
flyingdutchman
7/10
Mike Trout could hit it.
eighteen
7/12
Bryce Harper would pull it.
Oleoay
7/12
Bobby Valentine would complain about it.
chabels
7/11
By 2020 they will have resolved this problem, perhaps by encasing the stands under some kind of glass. This enables robots to take the field alongside humans just as Super Nintendo predicted they would.
serviceoutrage
7/12
This is my all time favorite baseball video game.
Oleoay
7/12
I liked BaseWars, though Baseball Simulator 1.00 had it beat.