Alan M Nathan

Professor Emeritus

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Alan M Nathan
290F Loomis Laboratory

Biography

Professor Alan Nathan received his bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Maryland in 1968, and his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University in 1975. He joined the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois as an assistant professor in 1977.

Professor Nathan has most recently been working on an exciting new experiment on real Compton scattering (RCS) at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (JLab). The ultimate physics goal of the RCS experiment, of which Professor Nathan is co-spokesperson, is to learn about the underlying structure of the proton by observing how the fundamental constituents (quarks and gluons) interact with each other.

To measure the probability of Compton scattering, a beam of high-energy protons, a proton-containing target, and a pair of detectors to detect the recoil proton and the scattered photon are needed. Professor Nathan's role in the RCS experiment is overall management of the design and construction of a full-scale photon spectrometer at JLab. He also heads one of the working groups, which is charged with putting together and testing the extensive set of data acquisition electronics needed to integrate the detectors to an online computer.

In addition to his research accomplishments, Professor Nathan is an enthusiastic and highly regarded teacher. He is a regular member of the University's list of "Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students."

Research Statement

My previous research was in the field of intermediate energy nuclear physics, particularly the study of the quark structure of the nucleon, using the Compton scattering reaction as a probe. At very low photon energies the cross sections are sensitive to the electric and magnetic polarizabilities of the nucleon. At much higher energies, the cross sections are sensitive to the onset of the perturbative regime.

In more recent years, my research has focused on the physics of baseball. My two broad interests are the dynamics of the collision between the ball and bat and the aerodynamics of a baseball in flight. I am particularly interested in new technologies that enable the study of these topics with unprecedented precision.

Alan M. Nathan, at the UIUC baseball stadium, being taped for a National Geographic television program on baseball; August 2006.
Alan Nathan being interviewed for a National Geographic television special on baseball
(aired July 6, 2007); UI's Eichelberger Field is in the background.

Professor Nathan presently serves on the editorial board of the journal Sports Engineering and has served on panels advising major league baseball, the Amateur Softball Association, the NCAA, and USA Baseball. His 2003 American Journal of Physics paper (A.M. Nathan, Characterizing the performance of baseball bats, Am. J. Phys. 71, 134, 143 [2003]) serves as the basis for present efforts to regulate the performance of non-wood bats.

Honors

  • Associate, University of Illinois Center for Advanced Study, 1998-99
  • Fellow, American Physical Society, 1992
  • American Men and Women of Science
  • Who's Who in Technology Today

Semesters Ranked Excellent Teacher by Students

SemesterCourseOutstanding
Fall 2001PHYS 101

Related news

  • In the Media
  • Outreach

If he told you, he would have to kill you.

So Alan Nathan, the University of Illinois scholar who is the unofficial physicist of Major League Baseball, is keeping his lips sealed.

“There is a limit to what I can talk about,” said Nathan. “It will become public soon.”

 

What is so sensitive that discretion is required?

Nathan and a group of fellow academics, on assignment from MLB Commissioner Rod Manfred, are closing in on the cause of the home runs being hit out of MLB stadiums in record numbers.

  • In the Media

There have been accusations for years that the Major League ball is “juiced,” thus accounting for the increasing power numbers.

MLB officials have categorically denied that, and last year, commissioned a study of the baseball and how it’s produced.

In the landmark 85-page independent report replete with color graphs, algorithms and hypotheses, a group of 10 highly-rated professors and scientists chaired by Alan Nathan determined that the ball is not livelier or “juiced.” Nathan is a professor emeritus of physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

The surge in home runs “seems, instead, to have arisen from a decrease in the ball’s drag properties, which cause it to carry further than previously, given the same set of initial conditions – exit velocity, launch and spray angle, and spin. So, there is indirect evidence that the ball has changed, but we don’t yet know how,” wrote Leonard Mlodinow, in the report’s eight-page executive summary.

  • In the Media

An extensive researcher into the physics of baseball and the ball’s movement, Nathan looked at Major League Baseball statistics from this year that tracked the way the ball moves on its way from the pitcher to plate, including its horizontal and vertical movement, release point, velocity and spin axis. He was particularly interested in the ball’s “spin axis,” which affects how much a slider breaks downwards when it reaches the plate more so than any of the other recorded movements that aren’t useful for a slider pitch.

  • In the Media

To most fans, it’s just a fun spectacle. But to Alan Nathan, home-run hitting is a physics problem. Given the distance between home plate and the outfield wall, what combination of ball speed, bat angle and external factors will send the ball out of the park?

“It's driven by a need to understand,” he said. “It’s the same reason I did experimental nuclear physics for many years.”