Ethan Adamson fired a 91-mph fastball this weekend. He and several other children lined up to test their pitching speed with a radar gun on the stage of Modesto’s State Theatre.
“Of course, it’s a modified shorter distance,” said Ethan, a 12-year-old pitcher from Turlock. “But it’s supposed to calculate it.”
He learned Sunday afternoon that some basic physics principles dictate how fast that baseball will move and where it might land in or near the strike zone. It’s the ball’s spin and the air around it, David Barker told several dozen people gathered for his presentation called “Physics and Fastballs: The Science of Baseball.”
Barker explained that he teaches the science of physics through baseball, showing children that players at any age are also intuitive scientists experimenting with techniques and equipment. These players turn the baseball field into a laboratory.
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“You try things out and see what works,” said Barker, who recently retired from the San Francisco Exploratorium.
The baseball discussion Sunday was part of the State Theatre’s Science on Screen series, incorporating films with educational discussions and demonstrations. The series will return to the theater with a new lineup of science-themed events in the fall.
Barker’s PowerPoint presentation incorporated clips from his favorite baseball movies as he explained the physics behind a curveball, the sweet spot of the bat and what makes a ball fly over the centerfield fence.
He showed a clip from “The Natural” when Roy Hobbs, an average ballplayer who seemingly comes out of nowhere, becomes a baseball legend by hitting the ball so hard the leather covering comes off.
Barker said there is about 8,000 pounds of force when a batter hits a baseball. The bat provides most of the energy in a swing.
“It’s all about how energy is stored and released,” Barker told the audience.
But it’s the small cork center of a baseball that makes it pop off the bat and sail through the air. Barker played slow-motion footage of professional baseball players hitting the ball, showing how the hardball actually loses its shape as it comes into contact with bat.
“The ball is a hard thing, but it’s made of soft stuff,” he said.
At a display table in the lobby, the attendees got an up-close look at a dissected baseball. The white leather covering and red seams are filled with white and gray cotton yarn and white wool yarn, with the cork center.
Barker showed the audience how hitting the ball with the wrong part of the bat creates vibrations. There are no vibrations on the “sweet spot” of the bat, where all you hear is the “crack of the bat” as the ball flies off.
“The bat is a living, vibrating thing,” Barker said. “This is why the bat stings when you hit the ball with the handle or on the end.”
He showed a clip from “The Sandlot,” a story of one shy kid’s introduction to the game at a neighborhood baseball field. Barker said that’s how he learned the game.
“We didn’t have formal instruction,” he told the audience. “We learned how to play by playing.”