Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Physics, My Fickle Friend

Attention conspiracy theorists: Do you know what shape-shifting, cunning force has the power to make or break the human race? Starbucks? No. Wal-Mart? Could be. Karl Rove, the round-faced face of the Bush #2 admininstration? Well, maybe. But even automatons are only as intelligent as the people who program them.

I'm referring to the science of physics, that fair-weathered friend that either keeps you upright or shoves your face in the dirt. Physics shows her generosity. Within her, there is some magical, merciful law that lets completely uncoordinated people do the improbable: balance on two wheels. People like me who can not throw a baseball, or water ski, or turn a cartwheel, or catch a Frisbee can manage to balance on a bike. And we never forget how, because riding a bike really is like riding a bike. And we don't feel insecure because the ability to balance - at least to some degree - is what we have in common with the cycling greats. Sure, some BMX cyclists flip and fly. And Tour de France riders can reach speeds of 60 mph as they descend the Pyrenees. But at reasonable speeds and under normal conditions, we can remain upright too, and maybe, if we're feeling daring, ring our bike bell as we pedal to Target.

I cling to my ability to ride my bike. Cycling is easy on the knees. It lets me cover long distances fairly quickly and run errands at the same time. Because my own weight far exceeds that of a small load of groceries, loading up my panniers doesn't tip me over. Yet, there are times when I'd rather load up my minivan, or just stay home and balance on a stationary object that doesn't require a kickstand - a chair, for example. But I'm under pressure to keep up with younger, fitter people and there's no other athletic endeavor, besides biking, that doesn't leave my 48-year old, "AARP-here-I-come" self in the dust.

I've tried tennis, but haven't progressed much in the last 20 years. If someone ever invented a game called "Forehand," I'd be a star. In that game, hitting to your opponent's backhand side or requiring him to serve would result in an immediate forfeit. (I don't envision that catching on.)

Almost 10 years ago, I tried sailing. Sailing is all about positioning the boat so the wind hits the mainsail at the proper angle (depending on if you're going upwind or downwind). All of this calculating wasn't fun for me; in fact, it was way too much work. I capsized the boat. I have no one to blame because I was going solo. But, if I had to blame someone, it would be my brother, who was paddling alongside me in a kayak and barking orders in a strange language. If you don't know the parts of a sailboat or the vocabulary of sailing, the commands are meaningless. "Put the snorfler at a 45-degree angle to the nuttle!"

"What?" The wind was whipping my hair into my face. My eyes stung from the salt. The water swelled like a pregnant beast and my hand, raw-skinned and stinging, clung to a thread of a rope. (Not really. I was on a calm lake in Vermont. It was sunny.)

My brother was exasperated. "I said angle the snorfler against the nuttle so the fibster doesn't seize up on the leeward side."

Did I mention I was in a Sunfish? Sunfish are as light as bathtub toys. They hardly displace any water and are what old New England salts call "wicked tippy." The slightest wake or innocent school of minnows throws them off-course.
In the end, as I was speeding - literally - toward the shore, some piece of wood came about, which is a nautical term for swinging wildly and hitting you in the back of the head with enough force to send you into the water and overturn the boat. My mother says I went down with my ship with a smile on my face. When I emerged, the sunbathers who had gathered on the lake's modest beach clapped for me. One man asked if I'd be trying to sail again because he'd like to watch. I laughed. In private, I cried. I cursed the wind vectors and angles and torque that tossed me over the side of a boat.

I turned my failure into a "teachable moment" for my children, who were quite young then, because all mothers of young children are bound by some tacit law that requires them to treat every failure as a teachable moment waiting to be unmasked. We talked about the importance of life vests and how you can fall out of a boat and not die.

I can not fight physics. I must be grateful for the scraps she gives me. If she lets me stay upright on two wheels on land, but nearly drowns me at sea, then so be it. Physics has taught me that my bike is my ally. It has self-stability, which explains why, if you push a rider-less bike, it will roll for several seconds before falling. Bicycle-balancing theories abound and they're complicated. They're riddled with words like gyroscopic action, steering-geometry, and angular momentum. But don't be intimidated. I threw all the words in a pot and boiled them down for you: Me pedal, me go. Me stop, me fall.


  1. What makes a skirt a "scooter skirt?" Time for more pictures!

    Re. bicycle physics: I still remember when I first found out that once you learn to ride a bike, you never can "unlearn" it. Fascinating.

  2. I'm sure it will not surprise you that we own a book called Bicycling Science. It's 356 pages of utter nerditude published by MIT Press.

  3. I love this. It's clever and quippy, and yet still shows how difficult it is to not only find a hobby, stay fit, but to be good at it. Moreover, sometimes there are things far and beyond our control that will just stop that in its tracks, namely gravity. Great post and I loved the anecdotes.



  4. I absolutely love your light and quirky tone in this piece- very engaging! Especially: "riding a bike really is like riding a bike" and "a game called 'forehand'" (I love tennis but I suck at it for this same reason). However, I think I might have to disagree with you about there not being degrees of balance...some people are definitely more or less wobbly than others. I do really like your bike diagram and newfound talent for posting pictures, however I am sad that you changed your background :(

  5. Stephanie, I agree with you about the balance, so I tweaked the last couple sentences (near the bottom of Karl Rove). Thanks so much for leaving me a comment and a great suggestion.


  6. Great post. I love how you feminize physics or at least give it the feminine pronoun and how you were able to turn this into a "teachable moment". Also, as a New Englander (more specifically being from the Boston area) I appreciate your reference of "wicked".

    In a last note, thanks for the help and tips on getting video on my blog.

  7. I appreciate your use of snorfler and nuttle in the same sentence.

    What a great blog!