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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Jamie Reed: What it's like to stop being an MP

As I approach the whips’ office through the tearoom staircase, a colleague shouts: “It’s Steve McQueen!”

Leaving parliament was never going to be easy. Having entered the Commons at a relatively young age – I was 31 – I knew that a parliamentary existence would be strange, even weird.

I knew that I would never be a “lifer”. A long Commons career followed by a sinecure in the Lords was never for me. This was informed by an aversion not to prolonged public service – the career in the nuclear industry for which I have departed parliament is just as dedicated to public service – but to the culture in which politics in Westminster is undertaken. There is a lot wrong with parliament. I arrived with a healthy contempt for its culture, behaviours and practices; I leave with the knowledge that this contempt was correct.

As a young MP, I felt like Carraway, never like Gatsby. Still, leaving the Commons has taken a huge mental and emotional effort.

21 December 2016

The news of my resignation breaks a few hours early because of a leak. The ­Guardian’s north of England editor, Helen Pidd, brings forward the publication of our interview as a result. Within minutes, my phone explodes. Twitter is unusable. My email server begins to creak. I watch with mounting ­anxiety. Ignoring calls from journalists – many of them friends – I talk instead with my fellow MP John Woodcock.

In politics, you acquire a sixth sense for who would be with you in the trenches at the worst moments. John is such a person. I don’t remember the conversation; I just remember hanging up and crying. I ­shower, dress and head for my in-laws’ farm. When I open the door, there are bottles of champagne on the step. That night, trying to avoid the news, I learn that I was young, popular, brilliant and talented. It’s like being at my own funeral. I drink the champagne.

24 December

I receive a text from Jeremy Corbyn wishing me and my family well. I thank him for his warm words on my resignation.

9 January 2017

I’m en route to the Vogtle nuclear power plant near Atlanta, Georgia, as a guest of NuGen. At Vogtle, Georgia Power is building two AP1000 reactors – the same type as will be built in Copeland. This is a project to which I have devoted 12 years of my life – from writing nuclear policy with the Blair government to making sure that Copeland was chosen as a nuclear new-build site and working to ensure that successive governments maintained the policies underpinning the nuclear renaissance that the Blair-Brown administration began.

Clement Attlee’s Labour government created the nuclear industry, the last Labour government created the nuclear renaissance and I am leaving parliament to return to the nuclear industry – yet Labour will be forced to fight the by-election in my former seat amid allegations of being anti-nuclear. There is nothing new in post-truth politics. Lies have always had the power to seduce.

23 January

It’s my last week in parliament and I’ve made arrangements to see the whips. As I approach the whips’ office through the tearoom staircase, a colleague shouts: “It’s Steve McQueen!”

1 February

I leave my home in Whitehaven for Sellafield at 6.45am. As I drive through the frost, an iridescent light appears on the horizon: a new dawn has broken, has it not?

I collect my pass and enter a whirlwind of meetings, inductions and instructions. Everyone is generous, welcoming and warm. It is at this point that, for the first time, I am faced with irrefutable proof that I am no longer an MP. I am reminded of my parliamentary induction. Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong told us, “Get in the chamber . . . Don’t hide . . . Sink or swim . . .” New Labour was no place for a snowflake. I am reminded, too, of my induction by the House payroll and expenses administrators. A year before the expenses scandal shook Westminster, they informed me: “All we ask is that you don’t buy any antiques . . .”

2 February

As when I entered parliament for the first time, I don’t have a desk. I’m hot-desking, or hot-podding, or hot-cubing. I remind myself that, for now, I remain the Crown steward and bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.

I bump into a colleague from my first time in the nuclear industry. “All right?” he asks.

“Getting there,” I reply.

“You know what they’re saying, don’t you?” he continues.

“No. What?”

“‘The bloody ego has landed.’”

I walk away wondering if it’s now my role in life to remind people of films set in the Second World War.

3 February

It’s a Friday and it strikes me that I have no constituency surgery. Everyone around me has their head down, meeting targets, solving problems. This is a £2bn-a-year operation. There’s no room for Gatsby here. This is why my new role excites me.

The self-immolating stupidity of Brexit, combined with the complex and growing needs of my family, contributed to my decision to leave parliament. Most of all, though, it was the opportunity to work in this organisation and help to drive change within it and my community that caused me to make the switch. My former constituency can and should be at the centre of one of the fastest-growing parts of the UK economy in the years to come. A changing Sellafield and a dynamic industry will be at the heart of this, and time is of the essence.

20 February

The by-election in my former seat draws near and my time as the Crown steward is running out.

I am repeatedly approached by the media for comment and I duck every request. This is for someone else now and I wish my successor well. None of us is indispensable. l

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit