Pitching a Nuclear Baseball

POV: Designer.  Difficulty 2.   Level 1 - 1 POV: Designer.  Difficulty 2.   Level 1 – 1

In a recent TED Talk, Randall Munroe shared his secret on how to effectively engage students when teaching science. The secret, according to Randall, is to relate science to areas of interest the students already have. For example, he asked kids to come up with answers to the “what if”s, “how much”s, and the “how many”s in the Star Wars universe because Jedi and Jar Jars got the kids excited about science.

Randall’s fanciful questions about Star Wars turned into absurd questions about anything. Randall’s attempts to answer these absurd questions led to a mild obsession, which manifested in the popular webcomic “xkcd”.  While the mission has a different header, the results are still the same. By answering questions with math and science, you can find insights to subjects you might not have otherwise considered.

In front of a room full of like-minded peers, Randall asks the absurd question “what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball at 90% the speed of light”. But unlike his science phobic kids, this room of techies and brainiacs used their excitement for math and science to spark their interest in the uninteresting subject: baseball. I can only assume most in the room would find baseball snooze inducing because most people in any room would find baseball snooze inducing.

Though baseball purists often butt heads when it comes to the notion of speeding up the game of baseball, Randall shows, theoretically, that speeding up a baseball to the level where Newtonian physics breaks down makes for a more interesting game. Pondering over the details of throwing a ball so fast that a nuclear explosion obliterates the stadium is my idea of  a good time, but the entire thinking exercise is just science with a coat of baseball paint. The real question is what does this scientific approach teach us about the game of baseball?

taken from Randall's XKCD. taken from Randall’s XKCD.

According the the Official Rules of Baseball a funny thing happens to the game when the physical world doesn’t function like we’re used to. As long as there is an umpire to interpret the rules, the game of baseball is able to be played in all sorts of abnormal conditions. This is not because the rules account for the unexpected but because they don’t! Apparently the rules check for a legal ball, a legal set up, and a legal pitch, so everything that happens in between the pitcher’s mound and the batter’s box is up for grabs. Broken sound barriers? Baseball doesn’t care. Rapidly expanding walls of plasma due to nuclear explosion? Baseball doesn’t care.

So the answer to the question “what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball at 90% the speed of light” is actually a question baseball can answer. As Randall notes, if a ruling could be made before the resultant blast vaporizes the city, according to rules 5.09, the ball (which would be in a plasma state) would make contact with the batter as the fastest pitch ever. And no matter how well thrown, making contact with the batter always results in a walk. So in this hypothetical game of baseball, the stadium lies in ruins, the ground is contaminated, the fans are a wisp of a memory, but as far as baseball is concerned, the batter gets to take a base.

The answer to the nuclear pitch is an anti-climactic, well-known fact of baseball; the batter gets to walk. As they commonly say when the destination is more mundane than expected, it’s not about the conclusion; it’s about the journey. The real value here lies not in the answer to the absurd but in the hypothetical, impossible space we needed to consider. Baseball doesn’t care about nuclear blasts because the rules of baseball have nothing that can interpret such a thing. But our minds can walk the space between explicit rules and grasp impossible concepts straight out of the plasma air; concepts like a near light speed fast ball. Even between an intentional walk and the next batter, there is space to wonder, learn, and reach for a star.