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MIT Research Isn’t All Quarks and Quasars. Sometimes It’s Baseballs

December 30, 1991

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ Quarks and quasars aren’t the only things on the minds of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sometimes they take up problems even people without Ph.D.s can comprehend.

For instance, why are there fewer home runs hit to dead center at Boston’s Fenway Park these days? How do you a cure a sick fish? And how do you make a submarine cut through the water more quickly?

The more cynical of Red Sox fans probably have a lot of quick answers for the first query, and the latter two may sound more like riddles, but all are grist for the research mill at MIT.

Long before he was a professor in MIT’s department of aeronautics and astronautics, Paul Lagace was a Red Sox fan. So when the roof behind home plate was torn down after the 1988 season and replaced with a higher one, he noticed that fewer balls were hit into the center field stands.

″I have season tickets in the center field bleachers, and it was easy to see that something was up,″ he said.

Or down, actually. Balls that once soared into the stands were falling short.

But why would a wall behind home plate affect balls flying into center field?

Curious about the situation and in need of a research project for his undergraduates, Lagace had the students build a wooden model of the ballpark. The model was then put in a wind tunnel for tests.

Lagace found that the higher stands created a vortex, or backwind, that could cause a fly ball hit to center to travel about 10 feet less.

″We used to get home runs at center field fairly often,″ Lagace said. ″The players have even mentioned the difference. Dwight Evans commented on it, and people laughed at him when he said the wind was in his face.″

Lagace next plans to next have his students figure out a way to eliminate the effect.

Think of sick fish, and you probably think of the goldfish lying belly up in a little bowl on the mantel.

But in a fish farm, one sick fish can make hundreds ill. And it’s not easy to get medicine into a salmon that’s underwater and under the weather.

So Yonathan Zohar, a visiting scientist in chemical engineering at MIT, came up with a way to employ ultrasound - usually used to diagnose and treat illnesses in humans - to cure what ails fish.

Zohar put an ultrasound probe into fish tanks and found that the vibrating device helped fish absorb substances like antibiotics and vaccines put in the water. It can also help fish absorb reproductive hormones, making them spawn.

Zohar theorizes that the ultrasound briefly alters a fish’s skin and gills so they absorb the chemicals.

Before, the only reliable way to vaccinate fish was to inject each one - not much fun for the fish, and not terribly practical. ″We’re talking about millions and millions of fish,″ Zohar said.

The methods may have tremendous practical application for fish farming, he said.

″Consumption of seafood is growing, but with pollution, commercial fisheries are catching fewer fish,″ Zohar said. ″Aquaculture is expected to close the gap between the increasing demand and the decreasing supply.″

If humans can help fish, why not vice versa? That’s the thinking of Michael Triantafyllou, an ocean engineering professor at MIT who is designing a submarine that flaps its tail like a fish.

″Fish have an amazing quality. They can move a lot faster than our submarines can with the same amount of power,″ Triantafyllou said. ″Tunas, the champions of swimming, can go 40 mph in spurts.″

Triantafyllou found that submarines cause eddies that create drag. Fish, however, flap their tails in such a way that the eddies help push them along.

Triantafyllou is building a 5-foot prototype with a flexible polyurethane skin fit over a system of pullies. Eventually he hopes to build a slightly larger, one-person sub in which the pilot will pedal the tail like a bicycle.

″It was a very humbling experience to realize that evolution worked better in producing thrust than the human brain,″ Triantafyllou said. ″But if we want to go any faster in water we have to see what nature is doing.″

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