PHYSICS AND SPORTS….Dan Drezner points today to a series of short articles in the University of Chicago magazine about the unexpected pursuits of some of Chicago’s researchers. He likes this one about the inequities of men’s and women’s toilets, and I also liked this one, which confirms a longstanding suspicion I’ve had about wine drinkers.

However, I think I’ll choose to highlight this article about John Milton, who is researching how the body handles tasks that it really shouldn’t be good enough to do well:

He?s demonstrating his unexpected discovery about the body?s nervous system: it generates random ?noise? to handle tasks?like balancing a dowel or standing still without falling?that require response in less time than it takes for a signal to travel to the brain and back (100?200 milliseconds for the stick, 250?500 milliseconds for standing). ?If the nervous system can only make a correction every 200 milliseconds,? he asks, ?what?s it doing the other 199??

Sports enthusiasts take note: it takes a full tenth of a second (or more!) for a signal to travel to the brain and back. This is one of those facts of nature that almost no sports enthusiast believes.

Tennis players, for example, universally believe that they respond to the ball hitting the racket by consciously making tiny adjustments. If it feels like the ball is going a little long, for example, you make an extra effort to pull the racket over the ball and keep it from lofting up.

But it ain’t so. Tennis balls stay on the racket strings for only a few milliseconds and are several feet away by the time a signal from your hand can travel to your brain and back to generate a correction. So it feels like you’re making a correction, but you aren’t, and this is why practicing proper strokes is so important: the only thing that matters is that the stroke is correct right up to the point of impact. After that there’s nothing you can do to fix things: it’s all physics.

The same is true for driving a golf ball or making a jump shot, but sports enthusiasts mostly can’t bring themselves to believe it, insisting instead that they just know all these little adjustments are happening and only killjoy researchers ? who have probably never taken off their coke bottle glasses long enough to engage in a good game of hoops ? might think otherwise.

Ah, well, at least we can still take solace in purely mental things like, say, the fact that sometimes we feel like we’re on a hot streak. We all know those are for real, don’t we? I mean, we can just feel it when we’re hot. Right…..?