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

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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