Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/February 1911/The Dynamics of a Golf Ball

THE DYNAMICS OF A GOLF BALL[1]

BY Sir J. J. THOMSON

CAVENDISH PROFESSOR OF EXPERIMENTAL PHYSICS, UNIVERSITY OR CAMBRIDGE, PROFESSOR OF NATURAL PHILOSOPHY, ROYAL INSTITUTION

THERE are so many dynamical problems connected with golf that a discussion of the whole of them would occupy far more time than is at my disposal this evening. I shall not attempt to deal with the many important questions which arise when we consider the impact of the club with the ball, but confine myself to the consideration of the flight of the ball after it has left the club. This problem is in any case a very interesting one, it would be even more interesting if we could accept the explanations of the behavior of the ball given by many contributors to the very voluminous literature which has collected round the game; if these were correct, I should have to bring before you this evening a new dynamics, and announce that matter when made up into golf balls obeys laws of an entirely different character from those governing its action when in any other condition.

If we could send off the ball from the club, as we might from a catapult, without spin, its behavior would be regular, but uninteresting; in the absence of wind its path would keep in a vertical plane, it would not deviate either to the right or to the left, and would fall to the ground after a comparatively short carry.

But a golf ball when it leaves the club is only in rare cases devoid of spin, and it is spin which gives the interest, variety and vivacity to the flight of the ball. It is spin which accounts for the behavior of a sliced or pulled ball, it is spin which makes the ball soar or "douk," or execute those wild flourishes which give the impression that the ball is endowed with an artistic temperament, and performs these eccentricities as an acrobat might throw in an extra somersault or two for the fun of the thing. This view, however, gives an entirely wrong impression of the temperament of a golf ball, which is in reality the most prosaic of things, knowing while in the air only one rule of conduct, which it obeys with unintelligent conscientiousness, that of always following its nose. This rule is the key to the behavior of all balls when in the air, whether they are golf balls, base balls, cricket balls or tennis balls. Let us, before entering into the reason for this rule, trace out some of its consequences. By the nose of the ball we mean the point on the ball furthest in front. Thus if, as in Fig. 1, C the center of the ball is moving horizontally to the right, A will be the nose of the ball; if it is moving horizontally to the left, B will be the nose. If it is moving in an inclined direction CP, as in Fig. 2, then A will be the nose.

Now let the ball have a spin on it about a horizontal axis, and suppose the ball is travelling horizontally, as in Fig. 3, and that the

PSM V78 D189 Dynamics of the golf ball 1.png
Fig. 1.

direction of the spin is as in the figure, then the nose A of the ball is moving upwards, and since by our rule the ball tries to follow its nose, the ball will rise and the path of the ball will be curved as in the dotted line. If the spin on the ball, still about a horizontal axis, were in the opposite direction, as in Fig. 4, then the nose A, of the ball, would be moving downwards, and as the ball tries to follow its

PSM V78 D189 Dynamics of the golf ball 2.png
Fig. 2. Fig. 3.

nose it will duck downwards, and its path will be like the dotted line in Fig. 4.

Let us now suppose that the ball is spinning about a vertical axis, then if the spin is as in Fig. 5, as we look along the direction of the flight of the ball the nose is moving to the right; hence by our rule the ball will move off to the right, and its path will resemble the dotted

PSM V78 D189 Dynamics of the golf ball 3.png
Fig. 4. Fig. 5.

line in Fig. 5, in fact, the ball will behave like a sliced ball. Such a ball, as a matter of fact, has spin of this kind about a vertical axis.

If the ball spins about a vertical axis in the opposite direction as in Fig. 6, then, looking along the line of flight, the nose is moving to the left, hence the ball moves off to the left, describing the path indicated by the dotted line; this is the spin possessed by a "pulled" ball. If the ball were spinning about an axis along the line of flight, the axis of spin would pass through the nose of the ball, and the spin would not affect the motion of the nose; the ball following its nose would thus move on without deviation.

PSM V78 D190 Dynamics of the golf ball.pngFig. 6. Thus, if a cricket ball were spinning about an axis parallel to the line joining the wickets, it would not swerve in the air, it would, however, break in one way or the other after striking the ground; if, on the other hand, the ball were spinning about a vertical axis, it would swerve while in the air, but would not break on hitting the ground. If the ball were spinning about an axis intermediate between these directions it would both swerve and break.

Excellent examples of the effect of spin on the flight of a ball in the air are afforded in the game of base ball; an expert pitcher by putting on the appropriate spins can make the ball curve either to the right or to the left, upwards or downwards; for the sideway curves the spin must be about a vertical axis, for the upward or downward ones about a horizontal axis.

A lawn-tennis player avails himself of the effect of spin when he puts "top spin" on his drives, i. e., hits the ball on the top so as to make it spin about a horizontal axis, the nose of the ball traveling downwards, as in Fig, 4; this makes the ball fall more quickly than it otherwise would, and thus tends to prevent it going out of the court.

Before proceeding to the explanation of this effect of spin I will show some experiments which illustrate the point we are considering. As the forces acting on the ball depend on the relative motion of the ball and the air, they will not be altered by superposing the same velocity on the air and the ball; thus, suppose the ball is rushing forward through the air with the velocity V, the forces will be the same if we superpose on both air and ball a velocity equal and opposite to that of the ball; the effect of this is to reduce the center of the ball to rest, hut to make the air rush past the ball as a wind moving with the velocity V. Thus, the forces are the same when the ball is moving and the air at rest, or when the ball is at rest and the air moving. In lecture experiments it is not convenient to have the ball flying about the room, it is much more convenient to keep the ball still and make the air move.

The first experiment I shall try is one made by Magnus in 1852; its object is to show that a rotating body moving relatively to the air is acted on by a force in the direction in which the nose of the body is moving relatively to its center; the direction of this force is thus at right angles, both to the direction in which the center of the body is moving, and also to the axis about which the body is spinning.

PSM V78 D191 Effect of air on the golf ball rotation in flight 1.png
Fig. 7.

For this purpose a cylinder A (Fig. 7) is mounted on bearings so that it can be spun rapidly about a vertical axis; the cylinder is attached to one end of the beam B, which is weighted at the other end, so that when the beam is suspended by a wire it takes up a horizontal position. The beam yields readily to any horizontal force, so that if the cylinder is acted on by such a force, this will be indicated by the motion of the beam. In front of the cylinder there is a pipe D, through which a rotating fan driven by an electric motor sends a blast of air which can be directed against the cylinder. I adjust the beam and the beam carrying the cylinder, so that the blast of air strikes the cylinder symmetrically; in this case, when the cylinder is not rotating the impact against it of the stream of air does not give rise to any motion of the beam. I now spin the cylinder, and you see that when

PSM V78 D191 Effect of air on the golf ball rotation in flight 2.png
Fig. 8.

the blast strikes against it the beam moves off sideways. It goes off one way when the spin is in one direction, and in the opposite way when the direction of spin is reversed. The beam, as you will see, rotates in the same direction as the cylinder, which an inspection of Fig. 8 will show you is just what it would do if the cylinder were acted upon by a force in the direction in which its nose (which, in this case, is the point on the cylinder first struck by the blast) is moving. If I stop the blast, the beam does not move even though I spin the cylinder, nor does it move when the blast is in action if the rotation of the cylinder is stopped; thus both spin of the cylinder and movement of it through the air are required to develop the force on the cylinder.

Another way of showing the existence of this force is to take a pendulum whose bob is a cylinder, or some other symmetrical body, mounted so that it can be set in rapid rotation about a vertical axis. When the bob of the pendulum is not spinning the pendulum keeps swinging in one plane, but when PSM V78 D192 Pendulum cylinder rotation is explained.pngFig. 9. the bob is set spinning the plane in which the pendulum swings no longer remains stationary, but rotates slowly in the same sense as the bob is spinning (Fig. 9).

We shall now pass on to the consideration of how these forces arise. They arise because when a rotating body is moving through the air the pressure of the air on one side of the body is not the same as that on the other: the pressures on the two sides do not balance, and thus the body is pushed away from the side where the pressure is greatest.

Thus, when a golf ball is moving through the air, spinning in the direction shown in Fig. 10, the pressure on the side ABC, where the velocity due to the spin conspires with that of translation, is greater than that on the side ADB, where the velocity due to the spin is in the opposite direction to that due to the translatory motion of the ball through the air.

I will now try to show you an experiment which proves that this is the case, and also that the difference between the pressure on the two sides of the golf ball depends upon the roughness of the ball. PSM V78 D192 Golf ball rotation during flight is explained.pngFig. 10.

In this instrument. Fig. 11, two golf balls, one smooth and the other having the ordinary bramble markings, are mounted on an axis, and can be set in rapid rotation by an electric motor. An air-blast produced by a fan comes through the pipe B, and can be directed against the balls; the instrument is provided with an arrangement by which the supports of the axis carrying the balls can be raised or lowered so as to bring either the smooth or the bramble-marked ball opposite to the blast. The pressure is measured in the following way: LM are two tubes connected with the pressure-gauge PQ; L and M are placed so that the golf balls can just fit in between them; if the pressure of the air on the side M of the balls is greater than that of the side L the liquid on the right-hand side Q of the pressure-gauge will be depressed; if, on the other hand. the pressure at L is greater than that at M the left-hand side P of the gauge will be depressed.

I first show that when the golf balls are not rotating there is no difference in the pressure on the two sides when the blast is directed

PSM V78 D193 Air stream effect on smooth and rough golf ball surface.png
Fig. 11.

against the balls; you see there is no motion of the liquid in the gauge. Next I stop the blast and make the golf balls rotate; again there is no motion in the gauge. Now when the golf balls are spinning in the direction indicated in Fig. 11, I turn on the blast, the liquid falls on the side Q of the gauge, rises on the other side. Now I reverse the direction of rotation of the balls, and you see the motion of the liquid in the gauge is reversed, indicating that the high pressure has gone from one side to the other. You see that the pressure is higher on the side M where the spin carries this side of the ball into the blast, than on L where the spin tends to carry the ball away from the blast. If we could imagine ourselves on the golf ball, the wind would be stronger on the side M than on L, and it is on the side of the strong wind that the pressure is PSM V78 D193 Air stream forces the golf ball to rotate.pngFig. 12. greatest. The case when the ball is still and the air moving from right to left is the same from the dynamical point of view as when the air is still and the ball moves from left to right; hence we see that the pressure is greatest on the side where the spin makes the velocity through the air greater than it would be without spin.

Thus, if the golf ball is moving, as in Fig. 12, the spin increases the pressure on the right of the ball, and diminishes the pressure on the left.

To show the difference between the smooth ball and the rough one, I bring the smooth ball opposite the blast; you observe the difference between the levels of the liquid in the two arms of the gauge. I now move the rough ball into the place previously occupied by the smooth one, and you see that the difference of the levels is more than doubled, showing that with the same spin and speed of air blast the difference of pressure for the rough ball is more than twice that for the smooth.

We must now go on to consider why the pressure of the air on the two sides of the rotating ball should be different. The gist of the explanation was given by Newton nearly 250 years ago. Writing to Oldenburg in 1671 about the dispersion of light, he says, in the course of his letter, "I remembered that I had often seen a tennis ball struck with an oblique racket describe such a curved line. For a circular as well as progressive motion being communicated to it by that stroke, its parts on that side where the motions conspire must press and beat the contiguous air more violently, and there excite a reluctancy and reaction of the air proportionately greater." This letter has more than a scientific interest—it shows that Newton set an excellent precedent to succeeding mathematicians and physicists by taking an interest in games. The same explanation was given by Magnus, and the mathematical theory of the effect is given by Lord Rayleigh in his paper on "The Irregular Flight of a Tennis Ball," published in the Messenger of Mathematics, Vol. VI., p. 14, 1877. Lord Rayleigh shows that the force on the ball resulting from this pressure difference is at right angles to the direction of motion of the ball, and also to the axis of spin, and that the magnitude of the force is proportioned to the velocity of the ball multiplied by the velocity of spin, multiplied by the sine of the angle between the direction of motion of the ball and the axis of spin. The analytical investigation of the effects which a force of this PSM V78 D194 Air stream speed variation above or below the golf ball in flight.pngFig. 13. type would produce on the movement of a golf ball has been discussed very freely by Professor Tait, who also made a very interesting series of experiments on the velocities and spin of golf balls when driven from the tee and the resistance they experience when moving through the air.

As I am afraid I can not assume that all my hearers are expert mathematicians, I must endeavor to give a general explanation without using symbols, of how this difference of pressure is established.

Let us consider a golf ball. Fig. 13, rotating in a current of air flowing past it. The air on the lower side of the ball will have its motion checked by the rotation of the ball, and will thus in the neighborhood of the ball move more slowly than it would do if there were no golf ball present, or than it would do if the golf ball were there but was not spinning. Thus if we consider a stream of air flowing along the channel PQ, its velocity when near the ball at Q must be less than its velocity when it started at P; there must, then, have been pressure acting against the motion of the air as it moved from P to Q, i. e., the pressure of the air at Q must be greater than at a place like P, which is some distance from the ball. Now let us consider the other side of the ball: here the spin tends to carry the ball in the direction of the blast of air; if the velocity of the surface of the ball is greater than that of the blast, the ball will increase the velocity of the blast on this side, and if the velocity of the ball is less than that of the blast, though it will diminish the velocity of the air, it will not do so to so great an extent as on the other side of the ball. Thus the increase in pressure of the air at the top of the ball over that at P, if it exists at all, will be less than the increase in pressure at the bottom of the ball. Thus the pressure at the bottom of the ball will be greater than that at the top, so that the ball will be acted on by a force tending to make it move upwards.

We have supposed here that the golf ball is at rest, and the air rushing past it from right to left; the forces are just the same as if the air were at rest, and the golf ball rushing through it from left to right. As in Fig. 13, such a ball rotating in the direction shown in the figure will move upwards, i. e., it will follow its nose.

It may perhaps make the explanation of this difference of pressure easier if we take a somewhat commonplace example of a similar effect. Instead of a golf ball, let us consider the case of an Atlantic liner, and, to imitate the rotation of the ball, let us suppose that the passengers are taking their morning walk on the promenade deck, all circulating round the same way. When they are on one side of the boat they have to face the wind, on the other side they have the wind at their backs. Now when they face the wind, the pressure of the wind against them is greater than if they were at rest, and this increased pressure is exerted in all directions, and so acts against the part of the ship adjacent to the deck; when they are moving with their backs to the wind, the pressure against their backs is not so great as when they were still, so the pressure acting against this side of the ship will not be so great. Thus the rotation of the passengers will increase the pressure on the side of the ship when they are facing the wind, and diminish it on the other side. This case is quite analogous to that of the golf ball.

The difference between the pressures on the two sides of the golf ball is proportional to the velocity of the ball multiplied by the velocity of spin. As the spin imparted to the ball by a club with a given loft is proportional to the velocity with which the ball leaves the club; the difference of pressure when the ball starts is proportional to the square of its initial velocity. The difference between the average pressures on the two sides of the ball need only be about one fifth of one per cent, of the atmospheric pressure to produce a force on the ball greater than its weight. The ball leaves the club in a good drive with a velocity sufficient to produce far greater pressures than this. The consequence is that when the ball starts from the tee spinning in the direction shown in Fig. 14, this is often PSM V78 D196 Effect of underspin after tee off.pngFig. 14. called underspin, the upward force due to the spin is greater than its weight, thus the resultant force is upwards, and the ball is repelled from the earth instead of being attracted to it. The consequence is that the path of the ball curves upward, as in the curve A, instead of downwards, as in B, which would be its path if it had no spin. The spinning golf ball is in fact a very efficient heavier than air flying machine, the lifting force may be many times the weight of the ball.

The path of the golf ball takes very many interesting forms as the amount of spin changes. We can trace all these changes in the arrangement which I have here, and which I might call an electric golf links. With this apparatus I can subject small particles to forces of exactly the same type as those which act on a spinning golf ball.

PSM V78 D196 Effect of gravity on electrons flowing in a magnetic field.png
Fig. 15.

These particles start from what may be called the tee A (Fig. 15). This is a red hot piece of platinum with a spot of barium oxide upon it, the platinum is connected with an electric battery which causes negatively electrified particles to fly off the barium and travel down the glass tube in which the platinum strip is contained; nearly all the air has been exhausted from this tube. These particles are luminous, so that the path they take is very easily observed. We have now got our golf balls off from the tee, we must now introduce a vertical force to act upon them to correspond to the force of gravity on the golf ball. This is easily done by the horizontal plates BC, which are electrified by connecting them with an electric battery; the upper one is electrified negatively, hence when one of these particles moves between the plates it is exposed to a constant downwards force, quite analogous to the weight of the ball. You see now when the particles pass between the plates their path has the shape shown in Fig. 16; this is the path of a ball without spin. I can imitate the effect of spin by exposing the particles while they are moving to magnetic force, for the theory of these particles shows that when a magnetic force acts upon them, it produces a mechanical force which is at right angles to the direction of motion of the particles, at right angles also to the magnetic force and proportional to the product of the

PSM V78 D197 Effect of gravity on electron flow or golf ball flight 1.png
Fig. 16.

velocity of the particles, the magnetic force and the sine of the angle between them. We have seen that the force acting on the golf ball is at right angles to the direction in which it is moving at right angles to the axis of spin, and proportional to the product of the velocity of the ball, the velocity of spin and the sine of the angle between the velocity and the axis of spin. Comparing these statements you will see that the force on the particle is of the same type as that on the golf

PSM V78 D197 Effect of gravity on electron flow or golf ball flight 2.png
Fig. 17.

ball if the direction of the magnetic force is along the axis of spin and the magnitude of the force proportional to the velocity of spin, and thus if we watch the behavior of these particles when under the masmetic force we shall get an indication of the behavior of the sninning golf ball. Let us first consider the effect of underspin on

PSM V78 D197 Effect of gravity on electron flow or golf ball flight 3.png
Fig. 18.

the flight of the ball: in this case the ball is spinning, as in Fig. 3, about a horizontal axis at right angles to the direction of flight. To imitate this spin I must apply a horizontal magnetic force at right angles to the direction of flight of the particles. I can do this by means of the electromagnet. I will begin with a weak magnetic force, representing a small spin. You see how the path differs from the one when there was no magnetic force; the path, to begin with, is flatter though still concave, and the carry is greater than before—see Fig. 17, a. I now increase the strength of the magnetic field, and you will see that the carry is still further increased. Fig. 17, b. I increase the spin still further, and the initial path becomes convex instead of

PSM V78 D198 Abrupt drop of a golf ball or electron flow.png
Fig. 19.

concave, with a still further increase in carry. Fig. 18. Increasing the force still more, you see the particle soars to a great height, then comes suddenly down, the carry now being less than in the previous case (Fig. 19). This is still a familiar type of the path of the golf ball. I now increase the magnetic force still further, and now we get a type

PSM V78 D198 Similarities of looping in flight caused by increased spin.png
Fig. 20.Fig. 21.

of flight not to my knowledge ever observed in a golf ball, but which would be produced if we could put on more spin than we are able to do at present. You see there is a kink in the curve, and at one part of the path the particle is actually traveling backwards (Fig. 20). Increasing the magnetic force I get more kinks, and we have a type

PSM V78 D198 Boomerang effect caused by extreme arcing.png
Fig. 22.

of drive which we have to leave to future generations of golfers to realize (Fig. 21).

By increasing the strength of the magnetic field I can make the curvature so great that the particles fly back behind the tee, as in Fig. 22.

So far I have been considering underspin. Let us now illustrate slicing and pulling; in these cases the ball is spinning about a vertical axis. I must therefore move my electromagnet, and place it so that it produces a vertical magnetic force (Fig. 23). I make the force act

PSM V78 D199 Vertical magnetic force applied to a stream of electrons.png
Fig. 23.

one way, say downwards, and you see the particles curve away to the right, behaving like a sliced ball. I reverse the direction of the force and make it act upwards, and the particles curve away to the left, just like a pulled ball.

By increasing the magnetic force we can get slices and pulls much more exuberant than even the worst we perpetrate on the links.

Though the kinks shown in Fig. 20 have never, as far as I am aware, been observed on a golf links, it is quite easy to produce them if we use very light balls. I have here a ball A made of very thin india-rubber of the kind used for toy balloons, filled with air, and weighing very little more than the air it displaces; on striking this

PSM V78 D199 Ball spinning on its vertical axis caused by an exaggerated slice.png
Fig. 24.Fig. 25.

with the hand, so as to put underspin upon it, you see that it describes a loop, as in Fig. 24.

Striking the ball so as to make it spin about a vertical axis, you see that it moves off with a most exaggerated slice when its nose is moving to the right looking at it from the tee, and with an equally pronounced pull when its nose is moving to the left.

One very familiar property of slicing and pulling is that the curvature due to them becomes much more pronounced when the velocity of the ball has been reduced, than it was at the beginning when the velocity was greatest. We can easily understand why this should be so if we consider the effect on the sideways motion of reducing the velocity to one half. Suppose a ball is projected from A in the direction AB, but is sliced; let us find the sideways motion BC due to slice. The sideways force is, as we have seen, proportional to the product of the velocity of the ball and the velocity of spin, or if we keep the spin the same in the two cases, to the velocity of the ball; hence, if we halve the velocity we halve the sideways force, hence, in the same time the displacement would be halved too, but when the velocity is halved the time taken for the ball to pass from A to B is doubled. Now the displacement produced by a constant force is proportional to the square of the time; hence, if the force had remained constant, the sideways deflection BC would have been increased four times by halving the velocity, but as halving the

PSM V78 D200 Cross wind effect on the flying ball rotation.png
Fig. 26.Fig. 27.

velocity halves the force, BC is doubled when the velocity is halved; thus the sideways movement is twice as great when the velocity is halved.

If the velocity of spin diminished as rapidly as that of translation the curvature would not increase as the velocity diminished, but the resistance of the air has more effect on the speed of the ball than on its spin, so that the speed falls the more rapidly of the two.

The general effect of wind upon the motion of a spinning ball can easily be deduced from the principles we discussed in the earlier part of the lecture. Take, first, the case of a head-wind. This wind increases the relative velocity of the ball with respect to the air; since the force due to the spin is proportional to this velocity, the wind increases this force, so that the effects due to spin are more pronounced when there is a head-wind than on a calm day. All golfers must have had had only too many opportunities of noticing this. Another illustration is found in cricket; many bowlers are able to swerve when bowling against the wind who can not do so to any considerable extent on a calm day.

Let us now consider the effect of a cross-wind. Suppose the wind is blowing from left to right, then, if the ball is pulled, it will be rotating in the direction shown in Fig. 26; the rules we found for the effect of rotation on the difference of pressure on the two sides of a ball in a blast of air show that in this case the pressure on the front half of the ball will be greater than that on the rear half, and thus tend to stop the flight of the ball. If, however, the spin was

PSM V78 D201 Cross wind effect on slice direction 1.png
Fig. 28.Fig. 29.

that for a slice, the pressure on the rear half would be greater than the pressure in front, so that the difference in pressure would tend to push on the ball and make it travel further than it otherwise would. The moral of this is that if the wind is coming from the left we should play up into the wind and slice the ball, while if it is coming from the right we should play up into it and pull the ball.

I have not time for more than a few words as to how the ball acquires the spin from the club. But if you grasp the principle that the

PSM V78 D201 Cross wind effect on slice direction 2.png
Fig. 30.Fig. 31.

action between the club and the ball depends only on their relative motion, and that it is the same whether we have the ball fixed and move the club, or have the club fixed and project the ball against it, the main features are very easily understood.

Suppose Fig. 27 represents the section of the head of a lofted club moving horizontally forward from right to left, the effect of the impact will be the same as if the club were at rest and the ball were shot against it horizontally from left to right. Evidently, however, in this case the ball would tend to roll up the face, and would thus get spin about a horizontal axis in the direction shown in the figure; this is underspin, and produces the upward force which tends to increase the carry of the ball.

Suppose, now, the face of the club is not square to its direction of motion, but that looking down on the club its line of motion when it strikes the ball is along PQ (Fig. 28), such a motion as would be produced if the arms were pulled in at the end of the stroke, the effect of the impact now will be the same as if the club were at rest and the ball projected along RS, the ball will endeavor to roll along the face away from the striker; it will spin in the direction shown in the figure about a vertical axis. This, as we have seen, is the spin which produces a slice. The same spin would be produced if the motion of the club were along LM and the face turned so as to be in the position shown in Fig. 29, i. e., with the heel in front of the toe.

If the motion and position of the club were as in Figs. 30 and 31, instead of as in Figs. 28 and 29, the same consideration would show that the spin would be that possessed by a pulled ball.

  1. A lecture given before the Royal Institution of Great Britain.