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Airdate: Apr 17, 2001
Scientist: Rufford Harrison

Table Tennis: Speed Glue

Table Tennis: Speed Glue
Twenty years ago, the sport of table tennis was changed forever - thanks to the chemistry of glue.


ambience: table tennis

The game of table tennis has always been played quickly, but twenty years ago a discovery was made that has allowed players to volley ping pong balls of up to 125 miles an hour. And the breakthrough was completely unintentional. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Rufford Harrison is a chemist, and the Chairman of the Equipment Committee for the International Table Tennis Federation.

"A Yugoslavian player went to a tournament once and decided he needed to put new rubber on his racket. And he hadn't got any adhesive, and he couldn't find any there, but someone pointed out to him that there was a bicycle shop next door to the tournament hall. And he went and got some bicycle glue, the sort of stuff you use for putting patches on flat tires. Put it on his racket, and went out to play his game, and immediately he discovered, and everybody else within earshot discovered, here was something different. The sound was different. The spin was magnified, and the speed was magnified. And he became an overnight better player. It turned out that in this bicycle glue, was a particular solvent that was not normally found in table tennis glue."

The solvent in this glue was found to increase the elasticity of the racket, which added speed and top spin to the ball when it was hit. But, it was also found to contain toxins, and as a result of this discovery, the use of that original glue was prohibited. Fortunately, scientists were able to develop new versions of the glue which gave players the same benefits without the risks. Now spectators at table tennis matches wish they all had slow-motion, instant replay.

Pulse of the Planet is presented by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.