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How does a Curveball curve? An aerospace engineer explains

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Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to

How does a Curveball curve? – Marek Powell, 12 years old, Dorchester Massachusetts

You may have seen pitchers pitch curveballs in baseball. It’s a pitch that can confuse hitters because it looks like they’re flying straight. but bows out when crossing the home plate.

Pitchers spin the ball when they release the ball from their hands. This could be a “topspin” spin, where the top spins forward as the ball hits the disc. That causes a difference in air pressure on the ball, which causes the ball to “burst,” or change direction.

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when the ball is spinning It will also drag the air due to the friction between the air and the ball. It’s like there’s a whirlpool of air around the ball.

while the ball is spinning The air above the ball will move slower. At the bottom, the opposite is true. It drags the air with it as it spins and moves towards the plate. accelerate air flow

So you have a change in air velocity between the top and bottom of the ball. Air with lower velocity has a higher pressure. High velocity air has lower pressure.

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The difference in force acting on either side will push the ball in either direction. So if the ball spins forward with topspin You will have the force to push the ball down. if rotated to the side There will be a force pushing to the side.

I study aircraft aerodynamics. and is relevant here. Planes and baseball have more in common than you might think. An airplane wing has low air pressure at the top of the wing and higher pressure at the bottom of the wing. That pressure difference creates a force that pushes the wings up. Support the weight of the aircraft against gravity. The movement of air over the wings creates a pressure difference that allows the aircraft to fly. The pressure difference is the same principle that causes a baseball to curve.

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