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Nicole Ackerman | SLAC | USA

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Physicists on Bikes

I’m on my own this weekend since my partner, Tom, is off bike racing in Nevada. A surprisingly large portion of the Stanford Cycling team are physics graduate students. In fact, cycling seems to be the sport of physicists. To be fair to my non-American colleagues who go crazy during the World Cup: yes, I know you love football (soccer) more than cycling. But most people (except Americans) love football, while it seems like the only Americans who care about cycling are physicists.

Einstein on a bike!

The trend may be due to a certain picture of Einstien on a bike that many of us have seen (after all, it is hypothesized that the “sloppiness” of physicists is also in imitation of him). But why was he on a bike? Did he catch the cycling bug from another physicist, like I did? Cycling often serves as a bonding activity between physicists. During my graduate school orientation we were invited on a “geek ride”, but informed that bikes bought at department and discount stores would likely be insufficient. I regularly see spandex-clad groups leaving SLAC and have gone on numerous rides with other physicists.

Cycling provides an opportunity to push oneself physically, to think, and to be alone. Everything has physics behind it, but the forces are painfully obvious in cycling: wind resistance, friction, and angular momentum interacting with your balance. Unlike team sports, where you have to react to other people, cycling is about kinematic optimization. Can you speed up through this turn? Can you be more aerodynamic on this descent? While running is similar in some regards, I think cycling is an easier task. Anyone can start cycling, even if they are quite out of shape. They might not get too far or go very fast, but they can get somewhere.

I adore my bike and cycling, but don’t intend to ever race. I prefer biking alone and tend to keep a relaxed pace (and stop and take pictures). I sometimes challenge myself – I biked up Edgewood Road yesterday, which is more of a climb than what I normally do. It was a beautiful day out, a cool wind and not too hot, so I was one of many cyclists on the road. Yet the cyclists were outnumbered by butterflies; apparently there is a “painted lady” butterfly migration passing through the area right now. Now that the weather is consistently beautiful, I look forward to many more rides.

The view from the crest of Edgewood

The view from the crest of Edgewood

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