Chicago Sun-Times
A hearty stew of offbeat sports and pop culture.

Recently in science Category


Weekends in the fall and winter mean one thing - football. NFL football.

By season's end, we're blessed with up to four days a week of hard-core football action, served up in three-hour bursts of smashmouth glory.

Or, at least it's three hours at a clip for the armchair quarterbacks. But according to the Wall Street Journal, your average NFL game doesn't even offer up a quarter hour of actual action - only 11 minutes of game play when all is said and done.

According to a Wall Street Journal study of four recent broadcasts, and similar estimates by researchers, the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes.

In other words, if you tally up everything that happens between the time the ball is snapped and the play is whistled dead by the officials, there's barely enough time to prepare a hard-boiled egg. In fact, the average telecast devotes 56% more time to showing replays.

So what do the networks do with the other 174 minutes in a typical broadcast? Not surprisingly, commercials take up about an hour. As many as 75 minutes, or about 60% of the total air time, excluding commercials, is spent on shots of players huddling, standing at the line of scrimmage or just generally milling about between snaps. In the four broadcasts The Journal studied, injured players got six more seconds of camera time than celebrating players. While the network announcers showed up on screen for just 30 seconds, shots of the head coaches and referees took up about 7% of the average show.

So while you're gorging on NFL playoffs - and lots of heart-healthy snacks, of course - keep in mind that you really do have to hurry through your bathroom breaks so you don't miss a moment of action. There are so few moments to miss, it turns out.

If baseball were nothing but fastballs, we'd all be in the Majors at some point. No matter how hard someone throws, with enough work and time in the cage, building up batspeed to attack a fairly straight ball is within reach of the average human.

What inevitably puts the spikes in the throat of the collective dream is the breaking ball. It's often said that trying to hit a round ball with a round bat is the hardest thing to do in sports. While that's certainly open for debate, there's no denying the difficulty of catching a pitch with a wrinkle square on ash or metal.

And for many a hardballer, the curveball is the pinnacle of frustration. Oh sure, you're slider, changeup and splitter can cause an ill-fated attempt to smash bat over knee on the way back to the bench, but the one pitch that can really make a great hitter look like a T-baller is the curveball.

Known by many names - The Hammer, Uncle Charlie, Yakker, Bender, etc. - there's nothing worse than feeling of being frozen, or worse - twisting in the wind with buckled knees, as a big 12-6 local skims across the plate for a called third strike.

Wait, it turns out there is something worse: it's all in your head.

According to Zhong-Lin Lu, who holds the William M. Keck Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, that filthy hook never happened. It's impossible. All in your head. What you just got punched out on and were made to look foolish by was nothing more than a straight ball and what amounts to an optical illusion caused by spin and the red and white blur of seams and hyde.

While you try to figure why this guy hates America and the rules of the universe, check out this rather amazing bit of visual evidence he presents. Sadly, it's not embeddable, but here's the explanation behind the illustration:

In baseball, a curveball creates a physical effect and a perceptual puzzle. The physical effect (the curve) arises because the ball's rotation leads to a deflection in the ball's path. The perceptual puzzle arises because the deflection is actually gradual but is often perceived as an abrupt change in direction (the break). Our illusions suggest that the perceived "break" may be caused by the transition from the central visual system to the peripheral visual system. Like a curveball, the spinning disks in the illusions appear to abruptly change direction when an observer switches from foveal to peripheral viewing.

Got that? It's all in your head, meat.

"Physically, there is no such thing as a breaking curveball. It's mostly in the hitter's mind," claims Lu.

Major League hurler Mike Marshall in a piece in US News' HealthDay begs to differ with the distinguished Lu:

"I can't believe the guy is saying something that was disproved almost 50 years ago. It's absolutely ridiculous. Baseballs move. They really move," Marshall said.

And Marshall knows of what he speaks. Aside from his mound credentials, which include 12 seasons in the majors and a 3.14 ERA, he majored in exercise physiology while earning a doctorate at Michigan State University. He says the devastating movement is no trick of the eye, but rather is due to air pressure forcing the spinning ball downward.

Now, take a look at this nearly illegal curve Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw drops on Sean Casey in Spring Training in 2008. With all due respect to Lu, when Professor Vin Scully gets that excited about a hook, it's a great pitch. Just look where it starts and where it ends and see if you think it's optical illusion or straight up filth:

For more visual observation on the art of the curveball - and whether it bends - take a look at what many students of the game think was the best ever thrown, from the hand of Sandy Koufax (toward the end of the video):

The debate aside, when it comes to a curve's power - perceived or achieved - perhaps the best answer is, "does it matter?"

"There seem to be arguments on both sides," Freddy Berowski, a researcher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, said. "But what really matters is that the batter thinks it curves."

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the science category.

Reality TV is the previous category.

sex is the next category.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.


Powered by Movable Type 5.04