Science

A Subversive Take on a Physics Mystery

Throughout all my life, I have always been the kind of girl that would ask many questions. Some for genuine interest’s sake and some others for the sake of boggling the minds of adults. What can I say? I’m also quite the jester.

However, this article is not going to expressly speak about said mannerisms. Instead, we will tackle my first sentence, given that it is here that I introduce an important concept: curiosity.

And “why is curiosity important to the matter at hand?” you may ask yourself.

Well, to give you a bit of context, said curiosity is what initially made me pursue a further understanding of the one thing that seemed to appease it: philosophy.

Statue of Socrates, Ancient Greece philosopher, thinking.

Now, it is easy to see why that would be the case, as philosophers LOVE to analyse difficult questions. And yes, admittedly the fact that I was an angsty teenager at the time might have ignited the pursuit of such a topic, but, hey, let’s not get too meticulous, shall we?

So here I was, a youngling and all, asking the “big picture questions”. You know, the ones that go like:

Why do we exist?

What is our purpose?

Why is it that baba ghanoush is so delicious whilst looking like vomit?

Photograph of a baba ghanoush dish.

And to these questions philosophy was only able to provide Absurdist answers (except maybe for the fact that baba ghanoush is exquisite, because that sincerely makes no rational sense whatsoever). And that made me needy. Needy for more. And when a person needs more, they often seek greener and better pastures.

And that’s exactly what I did.

So, ENTER PHYSICS!

Image composed of numerous equations and terms of physical appreciation.

Now, an interesting thing to note here is that my desire to study physics didn’t surge as an immediate response to the lack of answers I got from philosophy. Instead, it formed itself as a ‘gradient’. One which, I am afraid, started with a rather vague notion of ‘scientific thought’.

But it was thanks to that explicit interest in ‘scientific thought’ (and, by extension, science) that I began digging up ‘scientific matters’.

Naturally, I started my quest for knowledge with the easiest (and most boring) of sciences: biology (no hate intended to biologists), only to move on to chemistry (because exploding things is way cooler than vivisecting amphibians), which enabled me to finally land on physics.

But, boy, oh boy, what a mistake that was…

Photograph of a baby expressing remorse.

Now, don’t get me wrong with that statement. I LOVE physics. Like A LOT. After all, I wouldn’t be pursuing a degree in said subject if I hated it.

So, what is the heart behind my lament?

Well, a simple fact that is easily overlooked:

Physics is a subject for MAD people.

Just look at me! I went from being an individual who innocently wondered the reasons behind our existence to become a person who questions whether we are creditors of the means to affirm that, in reality, we exist.

And such a becoming worried me a lot. At least during the initial minutes of commotion, given that after these I simply moved on, accepting that I was now part of this “quantum realm of weird people and odd things”.

Psychedelic gif of varied colours.

But it was this messy, curious weirdness the one that opened up a brand-new series of ponderings within my head that, up to this day, I can’t seem to fully comprehend or rationalise. Be it the black hole information paradox, the definition of time, the reason why space is so dark regardless of being full of stars, and even the reason why there is a Universe if this, in theory, should not exist!

Nevertheless, none of these “yet to be answered” questions provoked as profound an impact upon me as the one I am about to expose. Because, trust me, the fact that we don’t know how any of it works is VERY important.

Yes, folks, I am speaking about the physics of cycling. Or, to be specific, the physics of bikes.

Photograph of a pair of bikes at rest.

Now, I know what you are thinking: “But, Ari, how can a machine as obtuse as a bike be an object of your fancy?

Well, first I must say that I applaud your use of the word obtuse in said question and second I must let you know that bikes are anything but obtuse in the realm of Physics.

But, why is this the case?

Introduced in 19th century Europe, bicycles (bikes, for short) are human-powered (or motor-powered), pedal-driven, single-track vehicles that have two wheels attached to a frame and whose propulsion is generated by means of a driving force.

A pretty simple thing, right?

In theory, yes. In practice, not so much.

Allow me to explain.

Gif of a moving bicycle.

As we all know, riding a bike is a REALLY fun thing. One of the best things ever, in fact, if you find yourself around a park that has many trees during fall season. However, have you ever asked yourself how is it that you riding a bike works?

I mean, it must be pretty simple, right? After all, a bike is just a mix of simple machines that operate together when put into motion by an external force. In most cases, you, a human being capable of riding it (or at least attempting to).

But what happens when we take “you” out of the equation? Or, to put it in “physical terms”, what happens when there is no cyclist on the bike? Can it remain standing and keep on moving?

And the answer, believe it or not, is yes! Here’s a gif proving it:

Gif of a moving bicycle.

Therefore, it is at this point that the question at the centre of our current dilemma arises: how do bikes remain upright?

However, before we fully address this highly relevant matter, I must first clarify one thing: 

In order for a bike to remain upright, it MUST be set in motion at a sufficient speed. 

That is to say that SOMETHING should cause the bicycle to move. In the case of the gif above, a human by means of a push.

So no, a bike doesn’t just get a “magical ghost rider” atop of its mount every time we leave them alone. Let’s remind ourselves to not forsake the physics of motion in this equation in order to give rise to pseudo-scientific schemes.

Meme.

But setting that aside, let’s consider the physics that we know in regards to this whole affair:

  • We know that bikes don’t stay up due to conservation of angular momentum. This is a common mistake if we assume that, given the spinning of a bike’s wheels, if a bike tips itself to a side, there will be some “magical” countering force from the wheels that keeps the bike up. Which is clearly not the case if you lock the handlebars in place.
  • We also know that bikes don’t stay up due to forward momentum. It’s true that a bike can change its momentum when a force outside of it (such as yourself) exerts a minor push, but that doesn’t affect its upward position.
  • We also know that bikes don’t stay up due to the gyroscopic effect on their wheels. This helps the bike steer, which in turn provides stability to the bike. However, this isn’t always the case, as there are bikes lacking this effect that are perfectly capable of maintaining an upward position.   

So, if what we know is actually what we don’t know, what do we really know?

Photograph of a baby in thinking position.

The simple answer: nothing. 

And that, fellow human, is how this apparently simple fact turns itself into a mystery.

Nevertheless, I must note that I missed answering a question I left from the beginning: why is this particular mystery so “important”?

Well, for starters and in accordance to what has already been stipulated, we have covered a couple of basic concepts (which you probably learnt in school or, at the very least, have a vague idea about) in relation to the physics of movement.

However, when we consider the bigger picture, the fact that none of these simple and seemingly “understood” concepts has the ability to adequately explain the real physics behind the movement of a driver-less bicycle basically means that there is something “not quite right” in our current understanding of movement and, by extension, of physics.

That is to say that: our physics is broken.

Okay, fine. That statement is a bit of a stretch, but one thing is definitely crystal clear in all of this:

Bike physics is alien stuff. 

Meme.

At least for now.

Thanks for reading. ♥

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