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Done With Quarks, Prof Tackles Physics of Tennis

April 26, 2007 By:
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Howard Brody

University of Pennsylvania physics professor Howard Brody -- now retired -- spent the bulk of his career examining the behavior of quarks and electrons through the use of advanced particle accelerators, delving into the laws that govern energy and matter, and even the universe itself, at the most minute, elemental level.

Then, nearly 30 years ago, he found another "love" -- with its own distinct "advantage." His newer questions were equally mysterious, at least for anyone who's ever stepped on a tennis court and failed to look as graceful as Roger Federer or Justine Henin. Namely, just what happens in terms of transfer of force and all that other scientific stuff when a fast-moving racquet makes impact with a fuzzy ball?

"I became the country's leading tennis technologist, mostly because I was the only one doing it," recalled Brody, 74.

How did it happen? The Newark, N.J., native grew up playing with his parents and younger brother on public courts. He competed for his college team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and remained a recreational player as his academic career progressed.

(The onset of Parkinson's disease and a partial loss of vision have now sidelined him.)

In the late 1970s, while on vacation in Florida, Brody caught his first glimpse of an oversized racquet, where the head's surface was larger than the traditional size. He asked several instructors about it and was simply told that it was better, but was given no reason as to why.

"So I decided, with the chutzpah that a physicist has, that I'll find out," he said.

The inquiry resulted in a 1979 article "Physics of the Tennis Racket," published in the American Journal of Physics. In layman's terms, Brody explained that by shortening the racquet handle and enlarging the head, designers were able to put the "sweet spot" -- the section of strings with the least vibration -- closer to the center, allowing players a greater margin for error.

According to Brody, the media took more of an interest in that one article than anything he'd ever done on particle physics.

"When I did this tennis thing, I was bombarded -- and its enjoyable to be in the limelight!"

Brody got in the game in the midst of the tennis boom, when John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg ruled the sport. Soon, the advent of graphite, and later titanium, racquet technology would make tennis far easier for recreational players, and along with increased fitness, transform the professional game to the point that footage from the '70s looks as if the ball's being hit in slow motion.

Over the past three decades, Brody has published dozens of articles on the subject, and written and edited several books, including 1987's Tennis Science for Tennis Players. He's consulted for Prince, as well as the International Tennis Federation, on racquet technology; contributed to instructional videos with pros like Vic Braden; helped video-game makers come up with realistic ball trajectories; and even designed his own programs, using a number of factors -- including the speed or an angle at which a ball is hit -- and tell if a shot will land in or out.

He still writes papers and lectures; he's traveling to London twice this year for International Tennis Federation meetings.

Brody's been married for 52 years. He met his wife, Lois, in the second grade. She actually attended his Bar Mitzvah -- although they didn't become a couple until college.

A chatty man, Brody is more reticent to discuss Judaism than physics or tennis, although he noted that he's been to Israel, and that of his five grandchildren, two attend the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School.

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