The bicycle problem that nearly broke mathematics
20 July 2016
Jim Papadopoulos has spent a lifetime pondering the maths of bikes in motion. Now his work has found fresh momentum.
“Everybody knows how to ride a bike, but nobody knows how we ride bikes,” says Mont Hubbard, an engineer who studies sports mechanics at the University of California, Davis. “The study of bicycles is interesting from a purely intellectual point of view, but it also has practical implications because of their ability to get people around.”
For a mechanician — that fusty breed of engineer whose subject is defined by Newton’s three laws of motion — the conundrums of the bicycle hold a special allure. “We are all stuck in the nineteenth century, when there wasn’t such a difference between math and physics and engineering,” says Ruina. Bicycles, he says, are “a math problem that happens to relate to something you can see”.