Chaos on the Fairway

Editor's note: Emory Magazine recently asked Raymond C. DuVarney, chairman of the Department of Physics, to take a lighthearted look at the physics of golf.

A couple of years ago I came across an article in Physics Today reviewing a new book titled The Physics of Golf. As I read on, I discovered that the author of the review had himself authored a book on the physics of baseball. It occurred to me that from the perspective of the physicist who tries to reduce all processes and interactions to their simplest essential elements, golf and baseball and perhaps even tennis would be practically the same thing.

I played golf once and concluded that the interaction between the club I had and the ball approximates what physicists call a chaotic system. (Chaos results when the slightest change in the starting parameters of an interaction causes an entirely different end result.) Each time, I addressed the ball in exactly the same fashion; yet the result was a random collection of hooks and slices with an occasional extraordinary drive straight down the fairway--true chaos. With some slight modification the above sentence could also describe my tennis serve. Apparently what I needed was Big Bertha and an oversized tennis racquet. So are we ready for the "Big Bertha Baseball Bat"?

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