The fragility of pingpong balls

Many years ago, a thread on alt.fan.pratchett lead to an essay-writing challenge. Main participants included Richard Bos, Chris Horry and myself. It had been mentioned that in some schools, there is a punishment which consists of writing an essay on the inside of a pingpong ball. Richard took up the challenge, and wrote such an essay for fun, which Chris published on his website.

This reminded me of an idea I’d had some time before, which was this. One person writes an essay on an obscure topic. The next person writes an essay on one particular sentence from the first person’s essay, this sentence being chosen by some agreed algorithm (e.g. second sentence from second paragraph, or something). And so on. The essays will inevitably be so obscure, pointless and rambling that they can only be thought of as parodies of obscure, pointless, rambling essays – providing much amusement to all.

Anyway, one sentence in Richard’s essay on the inside of a ping-pong ball was this:

Ping pong balls are fragile, and it is not necessary for them to show their insides any more often than they already do.

So I wrote an essay evaluating that claim. This essay was rushed, and I make no apologies for its lack of polish; I was, after all, just having fun. When I had written my essay, and it was published on Chris’s website, Richard and I challenged Chris to write an essay analysing the following sentence from it.

[on whether ice cream is hot] – it certainly contains some heat, therefore on the Kelvin scale it probably is.

Sadly, this essay was never written (the reader is welcome to take it on). But here’s mine.


On the necessity of showing the insides of fragile pingpong balls:

It is obvious to any but the most amateur wibbler that the question at hand is extremely complex, consisting of a large array both of syntactical components and of philosophical aspects. Each of these components and aspects will be given due consideration in the course of this essay, but it is necessary to briefly cover some of the issues involved in answering a question of such complexity so that the reader is able to parse the discussion more easily than would be the case if no such opening were provided. An industry that is at the forefront where the handling of complexity is concerned is the computer programming industry, and indeed the complexity of this question concerning ping pong balls is directly analogous to the complexity of a large computer program, with all its components, objects, subprograms and so on. It follows that the principles of software engineering that have been developed to handle such issues should prove equally effective for devising a strategy to answer the question before us. In particular I think the question should be handled in a way analogous to the “top down” approach to software implementation. That is, to begin with each of the components of the question will be assumed correct, and their overall structure will be discussed. Each component will then be broken into subcomponents, and the structure of these subcomponents will become the subject of the essay. Finally, the validity of each of the atomic components of the question will be analysed. Of course, this is an enormous simplification of the practical reality of answering such a question, but in general the trend will be from the analysis of the question as a whole to the analysis of its atomics.

We begin, therefore, by assuming that ping pong balls are in fact fragile, that it makes sense to speak of a ping pong ball showing its insides, and that it is indeed not necessary for them to show do this any more than they already do. It may prove to be the case that only a very primitive model of the relationship between these assertions can be constructed without deeper analysis of its components, for example the relationship between the fragility and desired behaviour of the ball may depend critically upon the precise implications of each of these components. However some headway should prove to be possible. Therefore : If a ping pong ball is fragile, does it follow that it need not show its insides? Note that for the time being I am leaving off the component, “Any more than they already do”. This is to simplify the question. Indeed, it is difficult to argue that a ping pong ball should need to display its internals at all, except perhaps during construction when arguably it is not yet a ping pong ball in the true sense of the term. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “ball”, if we ignore all irrelevant definitions of dances and suchlike, as “Solid or hollow sphere”, in particular, “Hard or soft, inflated or solid, large or small, sphere used in games”. So unless the process of manufacturing a ping pong ball can be considered a game – which is, admittedly, arguable – and/or unless an object in construction is considered to be, in the sense of Platonic reflections, classified by the attributes of the object yet in potentia, an unfinished ping pong ball must be deemed outside the scope of this essay, and when the extracted phrase “any more than they already do” is returned, this special case becomes a moot point. That case aside, however, an initial analysis does seem to confirm the view that a ping pong ball need not show its insides. None of the activities for which a ping pong ball is traditionally intended require contact – physically or optically – of any part of the world outside the ball with any part of it other than its surface. Of course, I am well aware that less tradional applications have been devised by the minds of men, but for the sake of decency I do not intend to cover these (the assertion here that not covering something can be an act of decency is clearly an interesting one from a philosophical perspective, but I do not intend to cover this either). However at no stage in the affirmation of the right of ping-pong balls to leave their insides unexposed has any mention been made of fragility. Is it true then, that there is no valid connection between the fragility of ping pong balls and their privelege of internal secrecy? I find myself drawn to the affirmative. The immediate reason that the latter component of the question is true is not to do with the physical properties but rather the intended application of a ping pong ball. It is simply not necessary for a ping pong ball to expose its insides in order to participate in what is generally considered to be its place in the scheme of things. However does the supposed fragility of a ping pong ball make it in any sense less appropriate than it otherwise would be for such an exposure to take place? This minor alteration moves the question from the domain of necessity to the domain of something more akin to morality, which has quite a different philosophical taste. To this we turn.

The generally accepted function of a ping-pong ball is to undergo very harsh and very rapid treatment, in which without any consideration for its personal wellbeing it is exposed to rapidly accelerating hard objects of rubber and plastic, or possibly wood. The smaller of these objects accelerates relative to the classical “earth’s surface” frame of reference, which has become a classical frame due to the wide range of phenomena that can be described most simply from that perspective – including, incidentally, the game of ping pong because from – say – the solar perspective, the trajectories of the ball would involve two seperate Newtonian orbits instead of one. This is, of course, a simplification of the true scenario with all the complications of elasticity, air pressure, Einsteinian physics and so on, but is accurate in principle if not in practise. It is frequently possessive of a deliberately rough texture which serves to increase the tyranic control of the human player over the ball. The larger of the objects – called the table – does not accelerate noticeably with respect to the aforementioned frame (ignoring the fact that it must do so, to a minimal extent, in order to reverse the direction of motion of the ball itself), but accelerates greatly with respect to the ball which would experience the table as rapidly approaching. The direct cause of this movement is the psycho-muscular activity of human beings. In other words, in the traditional – and generally accepted – scenario, an external consciousness assumes the right to impose upon the ping pong ball a procedure which, if imposed upon the body of the external consciousness, would likely result in extreme pain, injury, and possibly unconsiousness, concussion and even death. The application of rapidly accelerating hard objects to achieve such effects has been known since the beginning of human history, and religiously applied in every age, even though their presence is generally considered to cast doubt over the moral integrity of the activities that generate them, especially when applied to fragile bodies of which the ping pong ball is asserted to be an example. This raises complex issues, and it does not necessarily follow that the game of ping pong is immoral – although when these considerations are combined with the damaging social implications of the game, it becomes clear that the issues should at least be tackled. For our question, what we want to know is whether the moral difficulties associated with the game are reduced in any way by the decision not to expose the internal capacity of the ball, and how the answer to this question is associated with the fragility of the ball.

Let us assume, first of all, that the violent traditional application of a ping pong ball is to some extent acceptable. Some readers may be offended that I am even considering such a viewpoint, but it is necessary to do so if all aspects of the question are to be given due consideration. Indeed, the violence of this game is considerably less than in many other sports because it is in the players’ interests to keep the ball under as tight a control as is possible within the rules (which impose both a minimum and maximum to the horizontal component of the distance that the ball may travel under the force generated by a given impact, without incurring a penalty to the external consiousness responsible for that impact) and excessive violence – which generally results in a loss rather than a gain of control – is not conductive to this goal. The reasons for this are not quite as simple as Aristotle’s belief that natural motion causes natural effects whereas violent motion causes violent effects, but they are intuitive enough not to merit detailed consideration. Their only relevance here is to help place the issue of violence in ping pong into some kind of perspective. (Of course, the issue of whether a human being has the right to impose this tight control on the ball is itself an issue, quite regardless of whatever view may be taken of the violence imposed by the process.) With regard to the violence aspect, however, does the absence of unnecessary exposure of the ball’s insides somehow raise the position of the game on the acceptability continuum? Geometrically speaking this would indeed appear to be the case. The presence of air trapped inside the hollow ball creates a cushioning effect the violence of the game from the perspective of the ball, while the spherical structure gives the ball a persistent architectural permanance; and alternate structures in which the inside would be partly exposed would likely be structurally weaker and make the fragility of the ball an issue of much greater import. A can of softdrink provides a useful parallel. An open, empty can of drink is much more fragile, much more crushable, than a sealed, full one. The reader may care to experiment with this. Admittedly, a ping pong ball is a very different thing to a can of drink – the shape, structure, size, and just about every other aspect is strikingly different – apart from the shared property of having a course hollow shell around a fluid centre. However a more detailed structural analysis would definately prove the essential validity of the analogy. Conclusion : the enclosed geometry of a ping pong ball, in which the only part of it which is in direct physical contact with the outside world is its surface, helps to minimise the extent to which the violence frequently impacted upon it can cause permanent damage.

It is worthy of note that this is in the interests not only of the ping pong ball, but also of the human players, for the spherical symmetry of the ball makes it all the more controllable for them. Because the ball is spherical, the trajectory created by any given impact does not depend upon the point on the surface at which the impact takes place; but if the ball were not spherical, this would not be so. It is best for both the ping pong ball and its tyrannic manipulators, therefore, for the ball to be spherical and its insides not directly exposed to the world.

So far I have only mentioned one way in which the insides of the ball could be exposed (viz by way of its structure being altered in such a way as for their insides to no longer be fully enclosed by its surface), and only one interpretation of the phrase “the inside of the ball” (viz the simple, physical interpretation – simple, that is, because it is the first interpretation that the average person thinks of; although it must be said that the average person would probably keep well away from this essay altogether – as opposed to, for example, the inside of the ball in the sense of its deep emotional struggles). Keeping with the physical interpretation for the time being, there are other ways in which exposure of the ball’s insides could be achieved. For example the ball could be constructed from transparent material. This would, indeed, achieve said exposure without incurring any of the structural and symmetric problems already discussed, however unless the endeavour can be shown to have some practical purpose it cannot be said to be either necessary or appropriate. Perhaps if a ping pong ball were transparent, it would be harder to see and therefore players would miss it more frequently. This would help to minimise the frequency of violence impacted upon the ball, and therefore help to relieve some of the moral problems that we have discussed. The transparent material would have to be comparable to the white plastic used today, since if it were made of – for example – glass, this would introduce certain serious difficulties which are outside the scape of this essay. But if the ball is that transparent, then it is difficult to say that its insides are in fact being shown in any meaningful sense of the word. Further research is required to further analyse this and possibly other scenarios in which physical internal exposure of the ping pong ball may prove to be to its advantage. One other possibility is that a ping pong ball may be made more resistant to the effect of violence by alterations to the intial construction process, and that this new construction process would be longer – hence leaving the inside of the unfinished ball exposed for a greater period of time than is currently the case. At any rate, in none of these scenarios is any advantage achieved as a direct result of exposing the inside of a ping pong ball – so it follows that for any scenario in which such an advantage can be shown to be possible, there is probably an equivalent scenario in which the same advantage is achieved without the need for such exposure. Other factors such as relative expense then come into play, but I do not intend to cover this.

What of the internal emotional struggles of a ping pong ball? Is it in the ball’s interest, if said ball be fragile, for these to be exposed to the world? The classical answer is that a ping pong ball does not have any emotional struggles – but could not this be precisely because they are not exposed? If a ping pong ball were more sharing about its inner feelings, might it not find people more willing to act more sympathetically and less violently towards it? It must be admitted that as far as I know the classical answer is correct and a ping pong ball does not experience emotion, but then very little attention has been paid by the community to any alternative answer. Suppose, for a moment, that a ping pong ball does indeed experience emotion. Is it not the case that it is in the interests of the ball to reveal that emotion to the innocent tyrants who (to stretch the word “with” well past its breaking point) play with it? Sometimes people can be fearful of revealing their innermost feelings, because doing so can make them very vulnerable in the short term, but in the long term it is usually the case that voluntary revelation of such things is in the interest of the individual concerned. If I may be allowed a personal reflection, I once wrote the following in a letter:

“Also, there are times when our weaknesses must be confronted head-on … and when the very act of confronting our weaknesses in this way is a very powerful mechanism to defeat them and put them behind us for good.”

It may be that telling the world about its inner feelings would be the best thing for a ping pong ball, both from the psychological perspective, and because people would probably become (eventually, if not immediately) more sympathetic toward its rights. Of course, this is a decision that can only be made by the ping pong ball itself but we may be able to help by putting aside more time to listen to them and to try and create an environment in which they feel comfortable enough to talk to us. The reader is quite right to object that ping pong balls do not, in so far as has been observed, talk, and it is difficult to see how an object with neither voice nor automative parts can be expected to communicate. These are, indeed, serious issues. Because of the dominance of the classical position on this subject, it is unlikely that there will ever be ping pong balls that can communicate effectively with mankind; therefore the best we can do is to pray that the classical position is correct. Yet the assertion by human beings that ping pong balls need not expose their inner selves is possibly a very arrogant one from the perspective of the ball itself.

Of course, the classical view has a lot of weight on its side. Intelligence, in human beings, appears closely linked to the existence of our brains – and while doubt has been cast from time to time on the assertion that human beings are intelligent, there is little doubt that human beings are conscious; and consciousness too is generally considered linked to cranial capacity. A ping pong ball does not have a brain, nor anything else of comparable complexity, and it is unlikely that something constructed without need for either consciousness or intelligence should prove to possess either. Of course, one must remember that this is a statement of probability and remains untestable. It does, however, illustrate that the question of the emotional experience of ping pong balls lies currently well outside the domain of human knowledge and cannot be spoken of with any degree of authority. For this reason it seems to be that it would therefore be best not to place too much emphasis on this aspect of the question.

Let us revise what I have written so far, list the subcomponents of the question that still need to be asked, and then tackle the issues that I find on that list. I have said that there is, generally speaking, no practical need for the physical interior of a ping pong ball to be exposed. I have also considered the question of whether there is a moral reason why the aforementioned interior should not be exposed. Finally I have discussed the emotional aspect of the ball’s interior, asking whether such an aspect exists and whether exposure is in the interests of the ball. However the original question was to analyse the assertion that ping pong balls are fragile, and that it is not necessary for them to show their insides any more than they already do. I have not yet asked if ping pong balls are indeed fragile, nor whether a ping pong ball can be said to “show” their insides as opposed to having their insides “shown” by an external body. Indeed my comment about the absence of automative parts in a ping pong ball brings serious doubt to any suggestion that such a view can indeed be considered valid. How can a ping pong ball show anything if it has no capacity for automaticity? In most of the scenarios I have discussed to date, the decision to achieve a revelation of the ball’s insides is in the mind of another. I have stated that a ping pong ball probably does not possess consciousness nor intelligence, and if this is true then it certainly follows that it cannot show anything, of its own free will. The liberty I have taken in allowing “show” to be interpreted “have shown” will no doubt be frowned upon by syntactical purists, but I believe that it has been a necessary simplification to explore the circumstances in which inner revelation results in some kind of advantage.

Lastly, is a ping pong ball fragile? Of course, this is rather like asking if ice cream is hot – it certainly contains some heat, therefore on the Kelvin scale it probably is. Ice cream is tradionally considered cold because it is cold compared to other foods. The fragility of a ping pong ball should therefore be compared to that of the things with which it is associated – the solid plastic, rubber and wooden items that it encounters in the violent showdown which is ping pong. The Concise Oxford defines “fragile” as “easily snapped or shattered, weak; perishable, of delicate frame or constutition”. A ping pong ball is actually quite difficult to snap or shatter, being made of tough plastic however thin, although it can easily be cut or crushed which is certainly a form of fragility. Alone of all items involved in the game, excepting perhaps the heads of the players, the ping pong ball is hollow. This makes it structurally weaker than the objects as anyone who has tried to crush a table under foot will realise. Subjected to strong pressures, ping pong balls are indeed breakable, but they are generally resistant enough not to be damaged by the forces to which they are intended to be subjected. Ping pong balls are also fragile compared to other balls, just as ice cream is cold compared to other foods. Due to differences in structure and composition, it is far easier to irreversably damage a ping pong ball than it is to damage, say, a basketball, or a cricket ball, or a hockey ball, or a golf ball. The relative weakness of ping pong balls is cited in the existing literature; for example in the book “The Coodabeen Champions Take A Good Hard Look At Australia” (Copyright Coodabeen Champions Pty Ltd 1992, first published by Penguin Books Australia Ltd 1992) we read a description of the game “Dumbo’s Chess” in which players demolish the other player’s pieces on a chess board by throwing ping pong balls at it from across the room. (This may be prove a more morally acceptable application of the ball than the traditional game of ping pong; I can state from experience that it is a lot more fun.) The writer notes that “The game can be sped up somewhat by using a cricket ball instead but this tends to damage the pieces.” That is to say, relative to a ping pong ball a solid object such as a chess piece is not fragile, not subject to damage; whereas relative to most other kinds of balls this is not so. With only one or two exceptions that springs immediately to mind, the ball we are considering is the weakest of them all. It is therefore justifiable to describe a ping pong ball as physically fragile. As for the question of the emotional confidence or frailty of ping pong balls, I have already stated that nothing is as yet known on this subject.

A ping pong ball should, we must conclude, be considered fragile. The link between this fragility and the non-necessity for it to reveal its insides is somewhat more tenuous, as is the assertion that a ping pong ball can, in any circumstances, be said to be revealing its insides. Generally speaking it is neither necessary nor appropriate for such revelation to be made either at the discertion of the ball or otherwise, but possible exceptions to this rule can be found. This essay has been full of speculation, which is intended to pave the way for the research that is desperately required in this area.

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2 Responses to “The fragility of pingpong balls”

  1. tom fox Says:

    The inside of a ping pong ball essay task, was one set by my head teacher in my final year at junior school in the 60’s. the other option was the knot in the floorboards. Six foolscap [A4] sides was the target -. Less and you failed. I enjoyed it.
    We were told it was in preparation for going up to secondary school, where they expected proper length essays

  2. Flesh-eating Dragon Says:

    It seems there were a number of schools where the pingpong ball topic was used, which makes me wonder how it started and why it spread. In my school the expected essay length increased incrementally rather than suddenly from one year to the next, but I don’t know how things were in the 1960s.


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