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Inside the Blue Book
Undergrads at the Plate

College Seminar JE 302a
The Science of Baseball

Robert Adair, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Physics

The World Series may be over, but once a week in Jonathan Edwards College, 18 students are not quite ready to relegate the season to history. Every Tuesday afternoon this semester, they’ve been meeting from 3:30 until 5:20 to talk pitching, hitting, and catching.

But this is more than just a gathering of enthusiasts bent on rehashing ERAs, batting averages, and fielding percentages. The students, working under the tutelage of “Dr. Curveball”—a.k.a, Robert Adair, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Physics—are learning the science behind the national pasttime. The course is one of nearly 20 residential college seminars being given this fall, and though these offerings take place in settings more relaxed than those of traditional classrooms, each seminar has been vetted by the Course of Study Committee and is as rigorous as anything in the Blue Book. Indeed, anyone in Adair’s seminar who anticipated a walk in the park soon discovered otherwise. “I give problem sets,” says Adair, “and some of them are quite difficult.”

Using concepts from basic physics, as well as from neurobiology, psychology, exercise physiology, statistics, and even history and sociology, the students explore every facet of the game, from why the “sweet spot” of a baseball bat exists—it has to do with the frequency at which a bat vibrates—to the reaction time of hitters facing a Pedro Martinez fastball. The professor, whose book, The Physics of Baseball, is considered a classic, also puts to rest a perennial argument: A curve ball really does curve. (This was actually first demonstrated 150 years ago by New Haven native Freddy Goldsmith).

Perhaps most important, students in the course branch out to explore the science behind such issues as global warming and antimissile defense systems. “I hope they’ll finish with a great perspective on the game and a feel for what goes into a good scientific argument,” says Adair, who once served as Physicist to the National League. “I just hope no one takes the course with the idea that it will help them play baseball better.”  the end


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