We still don’t really know how bicycles work

Forget mysterious dark matter and the inexplicable accelerating expansion of the universe; the bicycle represents a far more embarrassing hole in the accomplishments of physics.

Let’s be honest, a bit of the pleasure at Chris Froome’s victory in the Tour de France is down to this being our second victory in a row and to the thought that the French haven’t won it since 1985. What must be worse for them, though, is that when it comes to the science of team cycling, even the Belgians are in front.
 
At the University of Mons, researchers are developing something called the Anaconda. It’s never going to be much of a speed machine because it is, in effect, a chain of monocycles with handlebars. These units are connected, by means of hinges that allow them to snake along, to a normal two-wheeled bike at the front. Every rider in the chain can be going in a slightly different direction, which means it takes an enormous amount of control and collaboration to move the thing forward. According to Olivier Verlinden, chief engineer on the project, the main qualification for riders is to be unafraid of falling off.
 
It’s fun, apparently. The idea is to unleash it as a beach-resort bike, the kind of thing that stag and hen parties will use to terrorise seaside towns across the world. But it is also scientifically interesting. Why? Because we still don’t really know how bicycles work.
 
It is rare that most people appreciate the bicycle, but it is quite an extraordinary machine. Push a riderless bike, letting it roll freely at high enough speeds, and it can withstand pushes from the side – it will wobble a little, but quickly recover. In the conventional analysis, that is because the gyroscopic force of the front wheel, its mass and the spontaneous turn of the handlebars all act together to keep the bicycle rolling forwards. This has something to do with the gyroscopic effect, the force that keeps a spinning top upright. You can feel this by removing a wheel from your pushbike and spinning it while you hold the axle spindles. If you try to change the orientation of the wheel, you’ll feel it push back against you.
 
The first mathematical analysis of bicycles suggested that this is also what keeps a moving bike on its wheels. But although the equations were written down in 1910, physicists always had nagging doubts about whether this was the whole story.
 
The most definitive analysis came exactly a century later. It involved an experimental bicycle that had all its gyroscopic effects cancelled out by a system of counter-rotating wheels. The effort of building such a strange contraption was worth it: the resulting paper was published the prestigious journal Science.
 
The publication plunged bicycle dynamics back into chaos. It turns out that taking into account the angles of the headset and the forks, the distribution of weight and the handlebar turn, the gyroscopic effects are not enough to keep a bike upright after all. What does? We simply don’t know. Forget mysterious dark matter and the inexplicable accelerating expansion of the universe; the bicycle represents a far more embarrassing hole in the accomplishments of physics.
 
And it may not be solved any time soon; very few researchers are working full-time on bicycle dynamics and there’s very little money in it. Once we’ve discovered exactly how these contraptions work, it might be possible to come up with bold new designs of bicycle – perhaps even better than the Anaconda. But nobody is desperate for that to happen; not even the French.
 
Maybe that’s OK. In an age where we have worked out the history of the cosmos and the secret of life, it’s rather nice that the humble bicycle keeps our feet on the ground. 
 
Cyclists during the Tour de France. Photo: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle