Judson Berkey is like most hitters. When he digs his cleats into the batter's box, all he wants to do is make solid contact with whatever the pitcher offers. But somehow you expect more from this 18-year-old whiz whose computer project—to determine the optimum angle at which to hit a ball to maximize the distance it travels—earned him honors as one of 40 finalists in the 50th annual Westinghouse Science Talent Search, in Washington, D.C.
Judson, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Alexandria, Va., was designing a computer model to simulate the flight of a baseball when he stumbled across a similar Tulane University research project. The Tulane researchers made the assumption that the spin of a ball does not decrease as it travels through the air.
"To me, that didn't make sense, just from playing baseball," says Judson, an infielder for the high school varsity. "The ball doesn't come down whizzing through the air. It's coming down pretty soft."
Using his own experience and some equations from The Physics of Baseball, by Robert K. Adair, a Yale physics professor, Judson created a computerized ball in flight and factored in a substantial decrease in spin. He theorized that to launch a hit the farthest, a batter should connect with the ball at an angle between 32 and 40 degrees from the horizontal and apply as much backspin as possible.
According to Judson's hypothesis: "Previous research stated that the vertical launch angle of the baseball from a baseball bat that maximizes the distance the ball travels decreases considerably as the magnitude of the spin increases. These results, however, neglected two aspects of a baseball in flight. They neglected to consider the variation of the coefficient of drag with the velocity of the baseball and the spin reduction due to the torque that is produced by the spin of the baseball."
Got that? "It was something that struck me out of the blue," says Judson. "It was a matter of actually writing a computer program and finding the equations that would allow me to make a model."
Thanks to the supercomputer at Jefferson, Judson could slave away on his project for 90 minutes a day in school. He also put in another couple of hours at home each night for more than three months. "I was never tired of working on it," he says. "And since this basically deals with maximizing the distance a launched object travels, it may have implications for other types of projections as well."
Judson had a chance to discuss some of those implications with President Bush recently in Washington, where five Westinghouse finalists had their projects on display. "The President examined my project for a minute or two and signed a baseball for me," says Judson. "He asked me to clarify how it worked."
"I wish I had known that when I was playing baseball at Yale," Bush said. "I was a good fielder, but I wasn't a very good batter."
Indeed, Bush was generally rated as a "good-field, little-hit" first baseman with the Elis. He hit .239 in 1947 before coaxing his average to .264 the next season. At first base his senior year, Bush committed two errors in 190 chances for a sparkling .990 fielding percentage.