October 24, 2012

Planetary Table Tennis Tour

Today's blog is going to be a little out of this world - and I mean that literally. We're going to explore the solar system through table tennis. What would it be like playing table tennis on the moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, or in outer space? We'll assume that you (and the ball, racket, and table) are impregnable to extreme heat, cold, pressure, vacuum, gravity, the lack of breathable air, and any other local problems. How will the various local conditions affect table tennis? I'm not going to spend a lot of time with a calculator; I think I can make some decent judgments based on general conditions. Feel free to give your own input.


Gravity is about 1/6 Earth's, and there's no air. With low gravity, and with topspin unable to curve the ball down without air, there's little to pull the ball down on the other side. So players wouldn't be able to hit and counter-hit very fast. Most rallies might become endless battles of attrition as players pat the ball back at lower speeds than are the norm for a good player on Earth. Or would it? I think that what would happen is that players would take advantage of the difficulty in keeping the ball on the table by putting extreme topspins on the ball. The topspin would jump off the opponent's racket, making it tricky to keep the ball from going long.

One way to respond to this would be to use a hardbat, antispin, or long pips (surfaces where the topspin won't jump off much), and return the player's spin with backspin, knowing that the backspin won't make the ball float (no air), so you have a larger than normal margin for error. The backspin would make it difficult for the opponent to aim up or down accurately, since there's little margin for error in this low gravity world. Ultimately, since speed is difficult to control, spin would be how one would mess up an opponent, since a player has less margin for error than on Earth. Perhaps we'd end up with battles between such spinners and those who simply keep the ball in play. Ultimately I think the rules would be changed to lower the net, which could lead to more of a hitting game.

One problem with playing on the Moon is that with less gravity, it's harder to get a quick start, since you have less gravity pulling you down for traction. So lots of side-to-side play would be effective as opponents struggle to move.


Compared to Earth, we have less gravity and a very thin atmosphere - sort of like the Moon, so play would probably develop similarly. Again, we'd probably want a lower net.


Now we've got gravity almost the same Earth's, but an extremely dense atmosphere. Spin will affect the ball far more than on Earth. However, the thick atmosphere would also slow the ball down rapidly, making speed less effective. I think the game would favor big, powerful loopers. Because topspin would pull the ball down so rapidly, the only limit to how fast you can loop is how much power you have, and so the best players would look like body builders as they loop kill each ball as hard as they can.

Choppers would also prosper on Venus. With the atmosphere slowing the ball down so rapidly, they could run down almost anything. The downside is if they put too much backspin on the ball, the ball would literally float upward and away from the table. So they'd need to chop as slowly as possible, giving gravity time to pull the ball down.

One problem with heavy spins, both topspin and backspin, is that the thick atmosphere would slow the spin down quickly. This would lead to more weight training as the need for pure power becomes more important.

Hitters wouldn't do so well. With the ball slowing down so rapidly after each hit, loopers would have no trouble looping these balls back at them. Similarly, choppers would be able to run them down as well.


Here we have extremely high gravity (2.5 times ours) and air density, much greater in both cases than even on Venus. Now it would be a struggle just to get the ball to reach the net. The main difference is that where on Venus you used topspin to pull the ball down in the thick atmosphere, now you have gravity alone doing this. And so, like on Venus, it would favor big, powerful players - except here they would be smashing the ball back and forth as hard as they could rather than looping. Choppers would also do well, as they could run down anything with the thick atmosphere slowing the ball down.


Now we have zero gravity and zero atmosphere. It would be similar to the Moon, with two major differences. First, since you are just floating in space, moving is impossible. So this would favor players with very long arms who can reach all parts of the table by just reaching out. Second, to anchor one in position, players would learn to hold onto a table leg or the table end with their free hand, making sure not to touch the actual table surface since that is illegal. So this would favor players with very strong non-playing arms, though of course all serious players in outer space would quickly develop these powerful arm muscles. Since players are anchored to the table by holding on with their free hands, movement is difficult, and so ball placement becomes a priority. A ball hit deep and right at a player's free hand (where he's grasping the table) would be effective. Also highly effective would be high-bouncing lobs, since if you don't get them off the bounce, a player would have to launch himself away from the table where he would perhaps make the shot before drifting off into cold, airless space and oblivion.

BBC Planet Ping Pong

Here's a one-hour 2006 BBC documentary on the history of table tennis. "The story of table tennis and how it became the most popular sport in Asia. The programme revisits the glory days of the 30s and 40s, when thousands would cram into Wembley to watch top players do battle. Contributors include Britain's only world champion Johnny Leach, China's former World and Olympic women's champion Deng Yaping, and writers Howard Jacobson and Matthew Syed." Also narrating parts of it are Marty Reisman and Tim Boggan.

The Ping-Pong Chapter of Former Goldman Sachs Employee Greg Smith's Book

Here's the report from Table Tennis Nation.

Lady Gaga

Yes, it's Lady Gaga playing ping-pong.

Susan Sarandon's Pre-Game Routine for Ping-Pong

Here it is. It has a lot to do with Tequila, but also covers stretching, high heels, rallying, analyzing opponents, and music, all in one minute.

Biggest Table Tennis Table Ever

Here's a video (10:01) of play on the "largest ping-pong table ever." Yes, it's six times the size of a normal table, practically a tennis court. (The description says nine tables, but it's actually six.)


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