Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Weird Science

Multimedia day here at The Cycle... install your pocket protectors and check out this video on bicycle handling from NPR's Science Friday:

(Can't see it? You can get to a non-Flash version on the Science Friday site.)

Now, the true geeks of bicycle design are all atwitter (probably even on The Twitters) about this one. Me, not so much. For as much as I get excited about the dullest minutiae of bicycles, front-end geometry leaves me cold. I geek out on many things, but as long as a bike goes in a straight line when I want it to and turns when I want it to, I'm happy. Everything in my stable does that a little differently, but that's all part of the fun.

My favorite takeaway from the video, however, is that the various "inventors" of the bicycle have brought us (through years of trial and error) to something pretty darn wonderful, even if science doesn't know exactly how or why it works. I'm probably taking this way too far, but I see a weird analogue to spiritual faith in that. The bike does what it's supposed to do. We can't explain how. It just does. My usual geeky insistence on knowing the "why" of everything should hate that, but for whatever reason, I find it comforting.

1 comment:

SteveKurt said...

"The spirit in the machine", maybe?

Well, to me, the trick of analyzing bike handling is the fact that it inevitably includes that unquantifiable entity known as "humans". The field of control theory really does prefer simple, linear systems. When you get into non-linear systems, such as the classic inverted pendulum (the Segway balancing system is a modern example), the analysis gets tougher. You have to do things like continually adjust the model based on position or speed.

To make things even tougher to analyze, throw a human into the system. Specifically, throw just about any human into the system, and expect the results to product some sort of consistent results. It's not likely to happen. This is how you get into unwinnable conversations about what is best. Everyone has a different experience and different preferences. Plus, humans are good at self-delusion, so even if they all had the same experience, they would probably not know it or admit it.

So here you've got a difficult system to analyze. As the space program has shown us, there's just about nothing that can't be solved by throwing a lot of money at it. Despite the abundance of carbon fiber and titanium, bikes aren't spacecraft, and there's not that much money in the industry. This is how we've arrived at the point where manufacturers have only vague ideas about what makes a bike's dynamics suitable for various applications. At least things have improved relative to 30 years ago. Maybe it's the influence of the internet; maybe it's the higher prices for bikes. I'm confident that bike manufacturers will continue to get smarter and bikes better.

Steve in Peoria