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Science is in the (baseball) cards and comic books

by Matt Davenport
July 29, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 31


A little inside baseball

Paul DeJong's Topps baseball card.
Credit: Topps
Five-tool player: Hitting, homering, fielding, throwing, and science-ing.

Paul DeJong is a professional baseball player, so it’s not at all unusual that he has a baseball trading card. The unusual part is what’s on the back.

Flip over his 2018 Topps Series 2 Future Stars card, and you won’t find the St. Louis Cardinals player’s career batting average (.277 as of July 18) or how many home runs he hit during his rookie season last year (25, the most by a shortstop in the National League). What you will see instead is that he is a science “nut” who teamed up with renowned chemist Lawrence Rocks to study the effects of temperature on baseballs.

We’re aware this may raise some questions, but don’t worry. The Newscripts gang is going to try to cover all the bases.

The connections between the two men are Burton Rocks, who is Lawrence’s son and DeJong’s agent, and a passion for science. DeJong earned his bachelor’s in biochemistry, but he freely admits science was a backup plan to baseball. Still, a shared love of science led DeJong and Lawrence Rocks to a lab at Long Island University Post to see how changing temperatures affect how high a baseball bounces. DeJong tells us conventional wisdom is that warmer baseballs are livelier, meaning they bounce higher or travel farther when they’re hit. The duo observed the opposite above about 25 °C.

A photo shows Paul DeJong and Lawrence Rocks.
Credit: Marlene Rocks
Lab mates: Lawrence Rocks (left) and Paul DeJong get ready to go hard on some baseball physics.

Their hypothesis is that the balls get mushier at higher temperatures and thus don’t spring back as effectively as cooler ones. “We’ll have to do a few more experiments and make sure these results can be replicated,” DeJong tells Newscripts. But the conclusion is really secondary to the pair’s larger goal, which is showing people, especially children, how approachable science can be.

“We’re talking about science as a method, not a subject,” says Rocks, who—as far as we know—is the only scientist to make it onto one of Topps’s flagship baseball cards. He says you don’t need to be in a degree program to do science; all you need is curiosity, imagination, and the ability to look at data objectively. “Everybody can do it.”


Laser light reading

A frame from the "Spectra" comic books.
Credit: American Physical Society
Science fiction: Good luck keeping a secret identity with social media these days.

When curiosity and imagination aren’t enough to get kids into science, Rebecca C. Thompson has another way in: subterfuge and superheroes.

Thompson is the head of public outreach for the American Physical Society. She’s also the Ph.D. physicist who authors a comic book series following the adventures of the laser-powered Lucinda Hene, who goes by Spectra. Thompson acknowledges that there are lots of educational comics out there, but she says many focus too heavily on the science content at the expense of storytelling.


“A textbook dressed up in superheroes is still a textbook,” she says. “My goal is to hook kids with a story.”And being more subtle with the science, rather than forcing it into a comic’s frames, is still effective, she says. For instance, she’s had APS members tell her that their kids can explain how a laser works after reading the comics.

“Spectra” is part of the story-based PhysicsQuest activity kits that APS provides free of charge to middle school science programs. The society estimates that PhysicsQuest reaches about 12% of middle schoolers in the U.S., which means a whole lot of kids have read the stories based loosely on Thompson’s own teenage experiences. Thompson, however, does not have laser powers—at least, not that she told Newscripts about.

The latest “Spectra” issue debuted July 18 at San Diego’s Comic-Con. This marks Thompson’s ninth trip to the famously overstimulating convention with “Spectra,” so she’s well accustomed to the hustle, bustle, and cosplay. But that doesn’t mean she’s tired of it. “We get kids coming to our booth saying, ‘I need to get my “Spectra,” ’ ” Thompson says, laughing. “When you’re trained as a physicist, you don’t expect to be signing comic books.”

Matt Davenport wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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