GLENDALE, Ariz. – What do baseball players and astronauts have in common?
Odd dream jobs. Other than that, usually very little.
This week is different. The Dodgers have been using technology developed for astronauts on the International Space Station to help adapt to a time zone 18 hours away. If the players seem slightly less tired than their opponents during the first two games of the season, science deserves partial credit.
A set of two LED (light-emitting diode) light bulbs were given to players Saturday, the day before the team flew to Sydney, Australia. One light bulb tricks the brain into thinking you're seeing daylight, the other into thinking it's nighttime.
“Scientists have found a new sensor in the eye that's directly connected to the part of the brain that controls our body's internal clock,” said Robert Soler of Lighting Science, the company behind the bulbs. “It is looking for daylight (think blue sky) frequencies to understand what time it is.”
Soler said the human brain can be tricked only so much, that it won't move the internal clock forward or backward by more than an hour or two. That's why the Dodgers were given the bulbs a day before their flight: to get a head start on their new time zone by turning the daytime bulbs on during daytime in Sydney.
It was quite a scene. At one point Sunday afternoon, pitcher Zach Lee sat by his locker in a well-lit clubhouse with a reading lamp glowing nearby. He wasn't reading a book or doing a crossword, just letting his brain receive the light.
“When it's time to go back to L.A., we do the opposite,” Soler said. “Turn this light on before the sun rises, and trick your body clock to thinking it's daytime.
“This one is the tricky part,” he continued. “You can't shift back more than two hours per day, or your clock will want to go the opposite way. For example, if a player sees a sunrise in Sydney, then sees a second sunrise in L.A. 18 hours later, his clock won't know how to process an 18-hour day. It can, however, understand a 22-hour day. So we need to approach with a series of 22-hour days in order to get back.”
The Dodgers' brains should be less difficult to trick than the astronauts'. The technology that went into the light bulbs was originally developed for the ISS, where astronauts see 16 sunrises every 24 hours, Soler said.
The light bulbs were installed in every player's hotel room by the time the team arrived in Sydney. Still, performance on a baseball field isn't a practical tool for measuring the success or failure of the light bulbs. There are too many outside variables.
To provide more useful feedback, the Dodgers were given a set of nine Basis wristwatches. In addition to telling time, the $200 watches collect data about deep sleep, light sleep and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, as well as heart-rate activity, skin temperature and perspiration. Manager Don Mattingly is among the nine wearing the watch.
“This will be the best way for us to find out if the players are acclimating correctly,” Soler said.
Besides using the light bulbs and the watches, Dodgers head athletic trainer Stan Conte told players to not sleep for at least the first four hours of the flight into Sydney, and drink plenty of water before and after arriving.
Dodgers pitcher Chris Withrow isn't questioning the wisdom behind the technology.
“I trust 'em,” Withrow said. “We can't get there and not be prepared for the game. Our bodies have to be ready.”
Will any of this work?
“I don't know,” Dodgers infielder Justin Turner said. “I'll tell you when I get back.”