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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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad