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February 22, 2012

Host: Ted Simons

AZ Technology and Innovation: The Science of Baseball

  |   Video
  • The Arizona SciTech Festival has over 250 events statewide. One upcoming event takes a look at the science of baseball. Arizona State University Psychology Professor Michael McBeath will talk about the SciTech event, “Spring Training Festival: The Mad Science of Baseball.”
  • Michael McBeath - ASU Professor of Psychology
Category: Sports   |   Keywords: baseball, scitech, ,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: What makes a curve ball curve? What makes a spitball so difficult to hit? Those are questions that science can help answer, and the science of baseball will be featured this weekend at the Scottsdale Civic Center Mall as one of the more than 250 events making up the Arizona Sci-Tech festival. In our continuing coverage of innovation and technology issues, we talk about the science of baseball with ASU psychology professor Michael McBeath. Good to see you here. Thanks for joining us.

Michael McBeath: Great to be here.

Ted Simons: You're a psychology professor, but we're talking science. What gives?

Michael McBeath: I'm in psychology and an engineering professor, but we like to study baseball because it's a metaphor for lots of activities that people do in everyday life and the science of baseball is a case where we can teach people science and doing something that's really a fun activity. So we like to -- like the overlap of that and the Sci-Tech event is nice because people can have fun judging fast balls and seeing why balls curve and there's a series of speakers we've invited from around the country that are experts in the science of baseball that will be giving talks so people can learn about science in a fun context.

Ted Simons: And for those of us who are baseball fans, it sounds fascinating, to know why certain things happen. Let's talk why -- let's talk about the sweet spot on an aluminum bat. Is there a sweet spot? Seems like there is.

Michael McBeath: There is a sweet spot and one of the speakers we have, Alan Nathan, coming from Illinois, has done research where they actually take bats and hit balls off them from all of these different spots and look at how far the ball bounces off it under different conditions and I think fielders -- the hitters can actually feel when they hit that sweet spot, it's a resonant property. Exactly the right length away, the bat's vibrating the least amount and we can show that the ball goes further when you hit that spot.

Ted Simons: It seems like a good golf spot. Where you hit a sweet spot.

Michael McBeath: Same thing.

Ted Simons: It not only feels good but it sounds --

Michael McBeath: The sound is part of the physics. The sound is going to -- it's actually, the sound is like the bat, or the golf club ringing so you're trying to ring it exactly the right way it gives you the most distance and transfer the most energy.

Ted Simons: The bat rattling in your hand on a cold day. Does a rising fast ball really rise?

Michael McBeath: This is a good one. This is work I've done research on this and I can talk a little bit about. It turns out it doesn't really rise but it actually falls a little slower than if it was just traveling regular. When a ball has spin, it curves a little bit in the direction it's spinning. So a rising fast ball has back spin. But the gravity is curving it down so it ends up curving less down than it would -- but there's also an illusory component and we've shown it's actually the misjudging of the speed of the ball that causes it to look like it hops up. And the ball never hops up. It's going down less than it should, so there's some physics. But it looks like it's hopping up because you're misjudging the speed when it comes at you.

Ted Simons: So pitchers who say they have electric arms, who have live fast balls because it seems to explode as it comes in. That's perception?

Michael McBeath: The exploding part is entirely a perceptual illusion. The ball is not going to accelerate. It's going to slow down a little bit because of the air resistance, but it looks like it accelerates at the end and that's how we show it's an illusory component and the illusion is true for the umpire and the catcher or first baseman, it’s coming at them. From the pitcher's standpoint, it doesn't look like a rising fast ball or from the side. But it definitely looks that way, so there's a perceptual reality from the batter's standpoint.

Ted Simons: I don't know if you can answer this. But the spitball, it's outlawed and you can't spit, or put any substance on there. Why? Because that makes the ball --

Michael McBeath: It really does have a physics effect. If the ball is a little bit lopsided and that's how a knuckleball works. If you throw a ball so it has hardly any spin and the seams on one side more than the other, it causes the ball to curve that way and it spins -- and a spitball caused more physics deviation and seemed unfair that some were doing it.

Ted Simons: Anyone who’s played baseball when you are a kid you catch a fly ball, it's fine. You get to be older, the fly balls are high and you realize I'm not judging these the same way anymore. It's different the higher the ball goes to catch a fly ball. Talk about the perception, physics, involved with outfielders chasing down the fly balls.

Michael McBeath: We put head cams on people, actually on dogs too. And showed that independent of the physics going on, people keep the image of the ball going in a straight line optically at a constant speed but you don't realize you're doing that, so that the ball might be curving a little bit through the air and even the pop-ups and low ones. When we look at what's going on on the head cam, the visual image, the ball is actually going in a straight line and it never comes down either. So that's one of the things we'll show this weekend at the demo things.

Ted Simons: Interesting.

Michael McBeath: If you point at a ball when you're trying to catch it, your arm goes up and never comes down, you catch it at the top. That's true with other ball sports like football too.

Ted Simons: Is that why sometimes the hardest catches for an outfielder is a line drive right at them?

Michael McBeath: That is why. Because it's right at you, you don't have the angle. So you're keeping the image going at a constant angle, when it curves, you are off line. But coming right at you, you don't have the line that way.

Ted Simons: Did I read that you invented -- had something to do with a ball-catching robot?

Michael McBeath: Yeah, it’s part of the research group I had with Tom Sugar at Arizona State. After we figured the control algorithm that people and dogs are using -- by the way, the dogs do the same thing. If you look at head cams and Frisbees, they're going in a straight line. On the image, the optical image of the camera. We said we should be able to program the robot to do this. And we designed and built a robot that catches balls. It's doing the same thing. If the image curves, the robot goes up and straightens it out. And curves the other way, then -- so the robot is doing the same control algorithm. It's part of a principle that says let's use the things that evolution honed on to make robotics better.

Ted Simons: This is all great stuff and I'm imagining a lot folks will be able to experience this in one way. Talk about the interactive nature of what's going on, happening.

Michael McBeath: It's a big event, a lot of things going on. But one of the things -- we'll have some booths that people can interact with, seeing pitches coming at them. And feel what it's like to have an 80, 90, 100 miles per hour fast ball coming at you, which by the way is a terrifying experience.

Ted Simons: Not only that, and some of us have experienced that. But you hear it.

Michael McBeath: Oh, yeah.

Ted Simons: You hear it and that's physics as well.

Michael McBeath: Yeah, so --

Ted Simons: The whizzing, buzz --

Michael McBeath: People watching TV, they go why doesn't that bum hit the ball? But when you're there, oh, my god, that's so fast, and it's coming at me. We also -- people can experience some of the physics of curveballs and demonstrate with beach balls and you can throw balls that curve around poles. Which was the first scientific study done in the 1890s at Yale University demonstrating curveballs and there's some other distortions that people have that they think if you have weighted bats that makes you swing faster. And showed it doesn't really happen.

Ted Simons: Sounds like a lot of fun and baseball is a great sport and great to know people are still discovering things about it. Thanks for being here.

Michael McBeath: Great to be here.

Legislative Update

  |   Video
  • An Arizona Capitol Times reporter provides a mid-week update on news from the Arizona State Legislature.
  • Luige del Puerto - Arizona Capitol Times
Category: Legislature   |   Keywords: budget, proposal, governor,

METRO Light Rail

  |   Video
  • An update on future expansions of the Valley’s light rail system with METRO Light Rail CEO Steve Banta.
  • Steve Banta - Metro CEO
Category: Business/Economy   |   Keywords: light rail, metro, expansion,

View Transcript

Ted Simons: Work is scheduled to begin this spring to extend light rail into downtown Mesa. It's part of metro's plans to grow the light rail system from 20 miles of track to 57 miles within the next two decades. Here now is metro CEO Steve Banta, who, starting next month, will serve as CEO of both the light rail system and the Valley Metro bus system. Good to see you again. Thanks for joining us.

Steve Banta: Good to be here, Ted. Thank you.

Ted Simons: It's a dual leadership position here. Talk to us about this.

Steve Banta: It is. It's a big decision to consolidate under a single CEO, for bus and light rail. It was the opportunity for the retirement of the previous director and the economy in the situation it was, it was a decision to go to a single CEO.

Ted Simons: Does it help, do you think, cities to think maybe a little more regionally the entire system, to think more regionally?

Steve Banta: It does. This is a small step, but a significant step toward regionalization in the valley. Trying to coordinate our bus and rail system even better than it is today.

Ted Simons: I was going to say, had a little bit of a problem with that in the past?

Steve Banta: Sometimes, four service providers providing a good service, you still have to coordinate between four people and now it's between three and we hope further down the road, it’ll get less and less.

Ted Simons: What if -- what happens if the bus system wants something and the light rail something else?

Steve Banta: That's a controversy, but what we’ve done is we've developed an intergovernmental agreement between how the boards will work with each other in case there's conflicting direction to me.

Ted Simons: We should mention that your transit -- your system includes buses and dial-a-ride and a whole bunch of options.

Steve Banta: We do. Ride sharing also a part of that. We look at what I consider a total transit system. We look at all modes working in concert to provide better service for our regional customers.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about Mesa, the status of the Mesa extension. What's going on out there?

Steve Banta: Moving forward. I think the last time you and I spoke, we got $35.5 million from President Obama and just recently received another $20 million from President Obama in his budget. That takes us to about two-thirds of our federal commitment to fund the $200 million project.

Ted Simons: 75 odd million needed, somewhere around there?

Steve Banta: From the feds and we got $125 million locally.

Ted Simons: And where exactly now will this extension go?

Steve Banta: Along Mesa drive. Short of the temple.

Ted Simons: Apache turned to Main, and then all the way to Mesa Drive.

Steve Banta: Right in front of where they're holding the GOP debate tonight, the Mesa Arts Center.

Ted Simons: And that's a lot of money for 3.1 miles. A lot work for 3.1 miles.

Steve Banta: It is.

Ted Simons: As far as a target date for completion and groundbreaking, I know it's a moving target but what are you seeing?

Steve Banta: Late spring groundbreaking for utility relocation and full funding grant agreement with the FTA in June and we look to operate sometime in 2015.

Ted Simons: I heard late '15, maybe early '16. That's moving rapidly.

Steve Banta: We have our fingers crossed it will be sooner.

Ted Simons: How about the Mesa business owners, how are they taking it? What about the Mesa business owners?

Steve Banta: We have a business assistance plan that goes in effect shortly and we'll work with the businesses along Main Street and downtown Mesa to ensure what we do build doesn't affect them to detriment.

Ted Simons: Can you take what was learned in previous operations and put that into Mesa, what worked and what didn’t work for local businesses?

Steve Banta: We're doing that now, we've had a couple of sessions where we brought in the business community of Mesa and invited businesses along the central light rail line to come in and talk about how they've dealt with the impacts of construction. It was a great lessons learned opportunity for us.

Ted Simons: We've got Mesa be extending 3.1 miles. What's happening with other extensions, other ideas out there?

Steve Banta: Four other extensions in the incubator. 2.6 miles Tempe streetcar project.

Ted Simons: Is that going from -- I'm hearing conflicting reports. Might go to Tempe Marketplace and out to Riverview, it might go south on Mill Avenue to Southern. What's happening?

Steve Banta: Two different corridors -- The one we're proposing, 2.6-miles. Goes south to Southern, down Mill Avenue and circles the downtown area around Ash Avenue and University and Rio Salado. And the corridor that runs up and down the Tempe Marketplace is something that we could look at in the future, with a partnership with ASU.

Ted Simons: You need to see what develops along the line?

Steve Banta: First, we've got to modify the regional transportation plan to get the corridor included into the plan and advance it through the federal process.

Ted Simons: Other ideas?

Steve Banta: 11 miles, I-10 west past the State Capitol.

Ted Simons: Ok.

Steve Banta: Three miles northwest up 19th Avenue to Dunlap. And we are currently in a study mode for south Central down Central to roughly Baseline south of Jefferson.

Ted Simons: How would this work? If you're going down Washington and you can go north up Central or go south down -- how -- you have two different trains?

Steve Banta: That's part of the environmental and planning study how the connectivity takes place. There could be an alternative route. Could be two different trains and modify our operations plan to serve the different corridors depending on our options.

Ted Simons: You mentioned 19th Avenue north. And stops in the old Christown -- called something else for a while. I seem to remember hearing there was a problem with extending that up to Dunlap. Is it on hold?

Steve Banta: Back in 2009, we were try doing it with local money and decided to do with without partnerships from the federal government and when the economy went in the wrong direction we had to stop. Put everything on the shelf. The project is about 90% designed and the contractors are working with us with minor road repair and looking forward now that the Mayor Stanton is in office to go before city council and advance the project.

Ted Simons: If everything moves smoothly, the Mesa extension will be up and operational before the others?

Steve Banta: Mesa looks it's in the queue first. The northwest extension could be in operation in 2015 too if we move forward because we've got a 90% design.

Ted Simons: I've got to ask about fare increases. Had a few along the line. Are you seeing any likely in the future?

Steve Banta: I think we're advancing the discussion publicly now. Right now, it's $1.75. Our conversation is to raise it to $2. We're getting feedback from the public and our city governments we work with to determine if we'll implement one or not.

Ted Simons: I know service cuts have happened in the past. Do you see service cuts likely?

Steve Banta: It's a potential. Looking at our budgets and trying to do what we can internally before we eliminate service to fare-paying customers but sometimes a service cut is needed.

Ted Simons: Very good, good to see you again. Thanks for joining us.

Steve Banta: Thanks for having us.