Alda Dominates as Science Learns How to Play Ball


Alan Alda just does it. Tennis. Golf. Basketball. Apnea.

Apnea? That’s what the French call the sport of holding one’s breath under water. And Alda does it. For one minute and 45 seconds, which is pretty good after just a little training but doesn’t begin to compare with the seven minutes the champion breath-holders can manage.

Thanks to science and technology, those times are becoming longer. And that’s where Alda comes in, as host of tonight’s “Scientific American Frontiers” (10 p.m., KCET), an installment of the series that examines this collaboration of the so-called nerds and jocks.

The show opens at the University of Calgary, where Joan Vickers is conducting research into where athletes focus their eyes during golf, hockey, basketball and tennis. She and her team do this by equipping a player with a helmet that contains a video camera and a device to track the eye’s pupil. In this way, researchers and coaches receive video of what the athlete sees and precisely where his or her attention is focused.


Top golfers, for example, putt by looking at the ball, then at the hole for a second or two, then back at the ball. They keep their eyes fixed at the spot where the ball is struck, rather than follow the ball’s path to the hole. And when Alda, basically a non-golfer, tries this “quiet eye” technique, he starts sinking putts like Ben Crenshaw.

For the remainder of the hourlong show, Alda looks in on research into how brain activity relates to golf swings; how baseball umpires use missile-tracking technology to help them analyze whether a pitch is a strike; how the sound of a baseball hitting a bat varies and can indicate to players how to field the ball; and how a French apnea team applies technology and biology to its sport.

If all this sounds like a lot of Alda, it is. His gee-whiz reactions sometimes take up so much camera time, especially in the early portion of the show, that there isn’t much left to clearly explain the science.