Heads up! Falling balls hazardous

Q. Would a baseball tossed off the top of a tall building be going faster than a pitched fastball by the time it hit the ground? Could somebody catch it? ­B. Robinson

 A. This stunt has been tried a couple of times. Terminal velocity of a falling baseball is probably around 95 mph, notes physicist Peter J. Brancazio. That's about what a good major league fastballer can muster.

But catching a horizontal, well-controlled pitch is one thing; fielding a ball plummeting unpredictably out of the sky is another. In 1938, a couple of pro catchers nabbed balls tossed from atop a 700-foot Cleveland skyscraper after watching the first few rebound 13 stories off the pavement.

The following year, playing top this, San Francisco Seals catcher Joe Sprinz stood with mitted hand beneath a blimp 800 feet up. One dropped ball smashed into bleachers; another pounded into the turf.

Then Sprinz got under one and wished he hadn't: The down-plunging orb slammed into his glove and shoved it back into his face, breaking five teeth and fracturing his jaw.

And the ball got away.


Q. What's the Southern hemisphere's equivalent of the North Star that stays directly overhead at the North Pole? ­S. Claus

 A. There isn't any South Star. To appreciate how remarkable it is to have a North Star, figure that the entire sky consists of 41,253 square degrees, and Polaris happens to be situated within a single degree of the celestial pole, says astronomer Bob Berman in Secrets of the Night Sky. So the odds against one of the 50 brightest stars winding up so singularly situated are almost 1,000 to 1!

But things will not always be as they are, for the Earth spins with a slight wobble, following cycles of 25,780 years, and as it does, our planetary axis points to various locations in the sky. This is not noticeable over the span of a few lifetimes, but within several thousand years Polaris will hardly be a North Star at all (then, roughly 200 centuries later, Polaris will "return").

As recently as about 1,500 years ago, the polestar was Kochab, as bright as Polaris but never very well aligned with Earth's axis. Not to worry, however: The Age of Polaris will see us through the current millennium.


Q. Aren't two (three, four...) heads better than one? ­B. H. Todd

 A. Takes only one head to answer this– the head of anyone who has studied the research on "brainstorming." It doesn't work. It's overrated. It's a waste of time. And the bigger the group, the more inefficient their thinking. To say this is heresy in many circles– political, military, educational, business–but the evidence has been clear for 50 years, says social psychologist Professor Gordon W. Russell in Sport Science Secrets: From Myth to Facts. Loners or at most duos (John Watson and Francis Crick discovering DNA) generate more and better ideas.

Oh, sure, putting heads together over coffee and amid souped-up morale can be, well, heady stuff. It's fun. And people come away feeling the process worked– the "illusion of group effectivity." Why? Because, says Russell, group members tend to take credit for ideas even if they didn't really originate them, fostering a roundtable glow of mutual ego-boosting. And it all feels so downright democratic.

So even if in fact nothing comes of it, everybody just can't wait for the next stormy brain session to ensue.


Q. Do you have a good idea how high you can jump? How about your hang time? ­S. O'Neal

 A. Most people guess a second or so, but are in for a surprise if they try. Basketball great Michael Jordan was one of the best, going up three feet or more, clocked at around .9 second air time, a couple of tenths more than most hoopsters and at least twice better than most of us mortals. So good was Jordan that he seemed to hang level in space. If you watched his head carefully, up, up, up it went, then leveled off and seemed to hold there, uncannily.

His secret lay in his fancy legwork. At the top of one of his signature jumps, Jordan would bring both feet bent back up behind him, seeming perhaps stylish affectation, yet it was more than that. In fact, it helped his shooting. For once he was airborne, he could no longer change the movement of his center of gravity. But by bending his legs at just the precise moment, he stabilized his upper body while his center of mass went up, then down. This movement was now translated to his arms and legs, steadying his eye for a deadly shot.

Similar wizardry permits leaping ballet dancers to hold their head level, a picturesque effect. Skillful high jumpers snake their bodies up and over, body part by body part, even as their center of gravity never clears the bar.


Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at StrangeTrue@Compuserve.com.