The following article appeared in February, 2004 issue of The Scientific American. The text is mirrored from

It Is High, It Is Far

By Steve Mirsky

But it's not gone, because there are some laws you just can't break

[Steve Mirsky]
Image: Frank Veronsky
As has been said often in these pages, there's a clear and present need for better math and science education in this nation. One obvious place for improvement in our math and science skills can be found among the hosts of and callers to the country's many sports talk radio programs.

Recently I was listening to a show on which the host contended that the Boston Red Sox's payroll had swelled to the point where Sox fans couldn't complain that the New York Yankees' even larger payroll gave the Yankees any advantage. A Boston caller disagreed, saying, "The Red Sox payroll is only $\$120$ million, and the Yankees is $\$180$ million. You know what percentage $\$120$ million is of $\$180$ million? Seventy-five percent." The host did not dissuade the caller. This display came from two grown men who spend an inordinate amount of their time calculating batting averages.

That exchange was about simple arithmetic. But the next morning I was treated to a lively discussion of Newtonian physics. The two morning hosts had left the subject of sports for a moment to discuss national news headlines. One story involved a Ku Klux Klan initiation ceremony at which a Klansman had fired a gun into the air. By the way, part of the radio hosts' conversation went something like this:

"The Klu Klux Klan."
"It's not Klu. It's Ku. It's not Klu Klux Klan, it's Ku Klux Klan."
"I didn't say Klu Klux Klan, I said Klu Klux Klan."
"You said it again, you said Klu."
"I did not say Klu Klux Klan, I said Klu Klux Klan."
"You said it again. You said Klu."

I was grateful I didn't have a gun. Fortunately, they eventually departed from the science of linguistics and returned to classical mechanics. As noted, some Klan member was firing a gun straight up in the air. You've probably guessed by now that a bullet came back down, which they tend to do. Well, all the bullets came back down. But one in particular found its way to the ground only after going clean through the top and then out the bottom of the skull of one of the celebrants, critically injuring him. (A British newspaper headlined this story "Ku Klux Klan Man Shot as Initiation Goes Wrong." Which raises the question: What Klan initiation has ever gone right?)

Ku Klux Klan initiation gone wrong
Image: Matt Collins
Anyway, the talk show hosts were incredulous that a bullet could have come down hard enough to do that kind of head damage "just from gravity," as one put it.

Now, I wouldn't necessarily expect Klansmen to go in for the kind of book learning that would reveal that a bullet returning to earth after being shot straight up could return fast enough to cause serious injury. What did surprise me was that two men who basically watch the trajectory of projectiles for a living--batted baseballs, for example--would be incredulous at the speed at which some objects return to earth. Hadn't they ever noticed that when a catcher fields a major league pop-up, where the baseball has gone almost straight up and down, the ball smashes into that catcher's mitt pretty darn hard?

In summary, as a public service for guys waving guns or news copy: stuff that goes up fast comes down fast. In a vacuum, where air resistance is not a factor, an object sent on a flight has a final downward speed that is, amazingly enough, equal to its initial upward speed. I've seen the equations--it's true! Closer to home, air resistance does indeed slow down a bullet or baseball, but both still gallop back to earth at quite a clip. And a bullet is pointy.

Clearly, the gunman, who has been charged with aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, did not intend to hit his victim. Why, he shot in the completely opposite direction! But ignorance of the laws of motion is no excuse. Nevertheless, the bet here is that the shooter gets off and that Isaac Newton gets charged with being an accessory after the fact. Or, actually, three centuries before.