• Physics 16, s78
The angle of attack and the friction of the surface are the only factors that affect the spin of a table tennis ball after it collides with a hard surface.
The players competing in Sunday’s final of the World Table Tennis Championship earned their place in the games in part by being able to control the speed and spin of the ball on each return shot. Now Théophile Rémond of the University of Lyon, France, and his colleagues have discovered the factors that determine a ball’s rotational speed as it rebounds off the table. . Spoiler alert: it’s the angle at which the ball hits the hard surface and the friction of that surface. Rémond warns that the study only takes into account hard surfaces – surfaces that do not deform – and thus only applies to the ball-table interactions. Interactions between the ball and paddle – a soft surface – may have other determining factors.
For their experiments, the team used a spring-loaded system to fire a table tennis ball at a sheet of glass, varying the angle and speed at which the ball hit. They then used videos of the ball’s interaction with the plate to measure its velocity, rate of rotation and angle at which it rebounded.
For angles of attack less than 45°, the team found that on impact, the ball rolled across the surface for a fraction of a full rotation before rebounding, a sequence of events that caused it to spin. For greater angles of attack, the ball slid instead of rolling, decreasing rebound spin. When the team looked at friction, for large angles of attack, the team found that the size of the ball’s spin and velocity were both set during the sliding phase and depended on the friction of the glass plate. The parameters both increased with increasing friction and saturated at values determined by the rolling motion of the ball at small angles of attack. The team also noted that the deformation of the ball on impact did not play a significant role in the rotational speed of the ball, which Rémond says is an interesting observation but which he thinks is unlikely to affect the actions of table tennis players.
Rachel Berkowitz is Corresponding Editor forJournal of Physics based in Vancouver, Canada.
- T.Rmond et al.Oblique impact of a buckling table tennis ball on a hard surface, Physically. Rev. HAVE BEEN 107055007 (2023).
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