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How do bicycles stay upright?



Wandering through the supermarket behind a half empty trolley, the mind screams for diversion.

The magazine section is a small oasis in a sea of processed food-like products. It is dangerously close to the chocolate shelves but still worth a visit. There are various titles we like to skim through, and a whole trove of covers to laugh at. Usually we make sure we are up to date with whatever Kim or Wills have been getting up to and move on, but last week the New Scientist stopped us in our tracks.

The cover listed two of a possibly infinite number of questions that physicists have been unable to answer…yet.

One was What Happened before the Big Bang? The other was How Do Bicycles Stay Upright?

We had to buy the issue. It contained the usual mystifying stuff that science enthusiasts get excited about, and these ten big questions to which they have no answer…yet.

Nine of them covered concepts so abstract that our household struggled to stay awake long enough to really grasp the questions, but the bicycle one was immediately digested.

Turns out the mystery is not so much how they stay upright, but how to describe it satisfactorily to other scientists. They think that to adequately explain it mathematically requires about 25 variables. So far they have not been able to. To quote a scientist: “What we don’t know are the simple, necessary or sufficient conditions for a bicycle to be self-stable”.

I have owned several that were stable on ninety nine out of a hundred days, but on that other day they put me in the emergency ward.

I have concluded, without the use of a calculator, that the common factor in the psychotic behaviour of my bikes is myself.

The bikes have all been able to stay upright, but only with me on top. I have tested it, without me they fall over. But sometimes, always with me on board, the laws of physics intersect with whatever we are trying to do and down we go.

The thing that makes a bike stay upright is being ridden. The question I would like answered is what compels us to ride them. Even with a roughly one in a hundred chance of coming out of the exercise scuffed up or actually broken, out we go. Again and again.

We have thousands of people working on it, and so far nobody has been able to describe it mathematically….yet.




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