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Airdate: Apr 10, 2003
Scientist: Rufford Harrison

Table Tennis: Intro

Table Tennis: Intro
Table tennis is not just a recreational activity, but an intense competition played at lightning speed. Officials are pondering how might they slow the game down?


ambience: table tennis

Most people think of table tennis as a leisurely, recreational game, but to the pros, it's an intense competition carried on at lightning speed. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Now, each point in a professional table tennis match lasts only for three or four hits, including the serve, and that's no surprise when you consider that the balls are being hit at speeds of up to 125 miles an hour, giving the receiving players only a fraction of a second to decide on their next move. Rufford Harrison, Chairman of the Equipment Committee for the International Table Tennis Federation, would like to see the games slowed down for the benefit of the spectator.

"He can't look at the play and figure out what player X is trying to do to player Y, for instance, because by the time he's got it all figured out, the rally was over long ago. It's much too quick. And my problem, as Chairman of the Equipment Committee, is to devise some way to slow it down a little and make the rally longer."

"So how can we change the characteristics of the racket to slow it down a little bit? One is to change the properties of the rubber itself. You can reduce it's springiness perpendiculars to the blade. You can reduce it's elasticity in the direction parallel to the blade. We can put limits on these properties. But supposing someone comes to a tournament with a racket that's out of bounds. It's too elastic, too springy. How does a referee know that he's cheating?"

Well, says Harrison, the answer is that the referee doesn't know, and so for the time being, these matches will have to continue at breakneck speed. Now in our next program we'll find out why, thanks to chemistry, that ping pong ball is traveling so fast.

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