Sox and Drugs: Baseball, Steroids, and Physics

Roger G. Tobin, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Tufts University

Friday, January 22, 2010, 3:30pm

Spanos Auditorium

This seminar is part of the Jones Seminars on Science, Technology, and Society series

The sports world is in an uproar over performance-enhancing drugs. In the United States steroids in baseball have received the most attention, in part because the purported effects are much more dramatic than in any other sport. From 1995-2003 a few players hit home runs at rates 20-50% higher than the best sluggers of the preceding century. In other sports where steroid use has been widespread, such as track and field, the enhancements have been much more modest. Could steroids really increase home-run performance that much? I will describe a model that combines estimates of the physiological effects of steroids, known baseball physics, and reasonable models of batting effectiveness for highly skilled hitters. A 10% increase in muscle mass, which can reasonably be expected from steroid use, increases the speed of a batted ball by 3%. But because home runs are relatively rare events on the tail of a batter's range distribution, even this modest change in speed can increase the proportion of batted balls that result in home runs by 30-70%, enough to account for the record-shattering performances of the recent past. I will also describe some of the attention – both welcome and not – that comes to the unsuspecting physicist who wades into such emotionally troubled waters.

About the Speaker

Roger G. Tobin is Professor and Chair in the department of Physics and Astronomy of Tufts University. Before coming to Tufts in 1995 he was on the faculty of Michigan State University and a researcher at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. His research in experimental condensed matter physics centers on the interactions of atoms and small molecules with the surfaces of metals. Such interactions are critical to a wide range of applications, including many chemical reactions; sensors for pollution control and other applications; and the deposition of thin solid films. Among his other interests are physics education at both the college and pre-college level; energy and climate change issues; and the physics of sports (especially baseball). Prof. Tobin received his A.B. from Harvard College in 1978, and his M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, the latter in 1985.