Pedaling the path toward a better understanding of the universe and a better world
When Steven Chu was appointed Secretary of Energy in 2009 under the Obama administration, he was given a motorcade complete with an SUV. But the Nobel Prize winning physicist who had used his bicycle to commute to his previous office as the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory sounded unhappy about not being able to cycle to work.
“My security detail will not allow it,” he said in several interviews. Eventually, Chu was allowed to get back on his bicycle with Secret Service agents also following on bicycles, some, albeit with the help of small motors to keep pace with the very fit Chu.
Riding bicycles may not be the choice of transport among politicians but it is more than a hobby for many physicists. Indeed, Albert Einstein, Nobel laureate, also dubbed father of modern physics, said of his ground-breaking theory of relativity: “I thought of it while riding a bicycle.”
The story oft-told to go with the quote has it that Einstein was riding his bicycle at night when he observed the beam that his headlamp cast always travelled at the same speed whether he was merely cruising or slowing to a stop. Even if the story may not be true, what is interesting is the relationship between physicists and cycling.
At European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, cycling is part of its history. Before the world wide web was invented (also, incidentally at CERN), physicists used bicycles with baskets to take tapes off their data acquisition computers and pedal to the computer center where the data would be loaded into a big number-cruncher for analysis.
“This was before the web, there were bicycles with baskets and the tapes were big, round magnetic tapes. We had a network but it was not the standard means for data transfer,” says James Gillies, CERN’s spokesperson and writer of Where the Web Was Born, the book, which mentions that the process of data transfer on bicycles was called Bicycle On Line. After the invention of the web, data transfer switched over to online networks but CERN staffers still use bicycles to travel through the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s highest energy particle accelerator most recently used to discover a particle, which physicists claim maybe the Higgs Boson.
CERN also has a bicycle checkout service and a bicycle sharing service, which allows its staff and users to borrow bicycles (with lock and key) for free. The required minimum deposit is fully refunded when the bicycle is returned unharmed. The bicycle checkout service allows users access to bicycle for long-term use and the bicycle sharing service has a docking station outside the lab where bikes can be checked out with a Velo Pass for short-term. CERN also has a bicycle shop that regularly maintains and repairs the bicycles on site. Besides this, many CERNers who use bicycles to commute have their own bikes. We met with some of them to talk about cycling and why they find the human-powered vehicle so compelling:
Twice around the world
Jack Steinberger, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his co-discovery of the muon neutrino in 1988, cycled every day from his house in Geneva, to his CERN office at the Franco-Swiss border until he was 88 years old.
“For 20 years, I cycled. It was 10 kilometers each way, and that means that I’ve gone twice around the world, because the circumference of the earth is 40,000 km and I’ve travelled a total of 80,000 km, from my house to CERN and back,” says Steinberger.
He started cycling following the advice of a cardiologist who recommended exercise and Steinberger decided cycling was the easiest and could be built into his daily routine.
“It didn’t matter if it rained or if the weather was bad. I had something to put on. I stopped cycling because of age, because my balance wasn’t so good anymore,” says Steinberger recounting a near-fatal accident that made him give up cycling.
Christine Sutton (far left) with her son (right) at Blenheinm 100 Mile Sportive. (Photo: Phil O´Connor)
“I did appreciate the fact that I got here fast, sometimes faster than a car because on a bicycle, there were no traffic jams. Faster than a tram because there were no stops. Also, it is a matter of ecology. In 20 or 30 years, we will have enormous problems because of our heavy reliance on oil and gas,” he says.
Steinberger is 91 now and comes to work almost every day, but uses a tram. “I don’t get much exercise anymore, it’s mostly just walking to and from the tram station,” he says.
“Biking is an investment”
Yngve Levinsen, accelerator physicist from Norway, began the independent CERN Bike to Work Challenge 2012 (separate from the official Switzerland’s national Bike to Work campaign) mostly to motivate himself and his friends in his department to cycle more often to work. He set up a page on endomondo.com and opened it up to other CERN people expecting at the most 10 or 15 people signing up. The numbers escalated rather quickly and before long, there were 140 challengers. The dedication of the people registered surprised Levinsen.
“I learned that people here cycle a lot. It made me realize that if you really want, you can cycle every day. No excuses,” says Levinsen, who plans to log in at least 1000 km in 2013.
“I started the challenge because there are ways you can come up with excuses -- the rain, the weather, there’s something you have to do later, or you have a meeting. Cycling is a nice way to get around especially when going through small towns because driving is too fast and walking can be slow. But it can be an inconvenience if you have to transport things or people,” says Levinsen.
Safety is a big concern though as not all roads on the French side and some on the Swiss side do not have separate bicycle lanes. “Drivers are not careful and bike lanes are important. It is usually best for a city to build it in during the planning phase because it could get costly afterward,” says Levinsen, who started the Challenge after hearing about a similar venture hosted by Norway’s road planning department where his brother works.
“Biking is an investment because people get more exercise and are healthier, and that means they are more productive at work,” he says.
7232.92 km in a year
Tim Smith, Group Leader of CERN’s Collaboration and Information Services, logged in a total of 7232.94 km in 2012, just commuting to and from work. The clear winner of the Bike Challenge 2012, Smith didn’t do it for the challenge though. He did it because it is something he has been doing for a long time and would rather do than drive his car (which he chose to sell a few years ago) even though he lives 21km away.
“It was a choice,” says Smith. And the choice hasn’t always been easy. Smith has had some accidents on the road, one so severe that the doctors told him he was lucky to be alive at all. But the accidents did not deter Smith. Instead, he decided to find safer paths, which meant riding through the forests to get to work.
“Only 10 percent of proper road to and from work have bicycle paths. When I started, I had to fight traffic everyday and it was more dangerous. I had a few accidents and after the one that nearly killed me, I decided to go off road and it is a prettier route,” he says.
What about after getting to work? “I take a shower. When I decided to start cycling, I did a petition with the IT department to have proper showers put in. Now, they have shower facilities for men and women. There’s a line outside the shower facility, longer usually during lunch time,” he says.
Smith rides his mountain bike to work. He had been a road biker until he met his wife who introduced him to mountain biking. Ever since, it has become his passion. “Like anything in the mountains, you invest your energy to get to the top and are rewarded by fantastic views,” he says. He has done races and mini-triathlons. His two sons are also avid bikers, and Smith talks enthusiastically about Downhill Biking, a sport he engages in with his son.
“I love sports and cycling liberates my mind. It is when I relax, plan, solve problems, and can disconnect,” he says.
The necessity of cycling
Pauline Gagnon, high energy physicist and campaigner for promoting Women in Science, is also an avid cyclist. Born and brought up in Canada, she is prepared to bike in the worst of weathers. Even when the roads are slick with ice and people are slipping and sliding to keep from losing their balance, one might spot Gagnon, her spiked winter tires mounted, speeding past perfectly poised.
She is the epitome of Susan B. Anthony’s words: “Cycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” And to see one riding in harsh weather to a laboratory dominated by her male counterparts, Gagnon on her bicycle would have prompted Anthony to cheer and applaud.
“I’ve cycled in worse weather, the winter here is nothing,” says Gagnon of the cold climate in the region that straddles France and Switzerland, surrounded by the Jura and the Alps. She relates how she puts crampons on her bicycle and mounts the heavy winter tires when the streets are layered with the dangerously deceptive black ice.
“I was riding my bike when it was especially cold and the streets were icy. There was this guy who was walking slowly, trying to balance himself and guide his bicycle. And I zipped past him and that look on his face, you should have seen it,” she laughs.
Gagnon has been biking since she was an undergraduate student in Montreal when she was 20 years old, and even used it to move her 45 kg bookshelf by herself. She moved residence from Canada to California, and then to the small French town of Sergy near CERN. Through it all, she has been cycling.
“Sometimes I bike to work then run back home or run to work and bike back home. I have two bikes, one for winter and one for summer,” she says. She wears fast drying clothes and uses the shower facilities at CERN.
“I have to bike, it is a necessity for me. It’s when I sort out my thoughts and make plans, when I have time for myself. Just being on a bicycle gives me such a feeling of freedom and lightness” she says.
“See so much more”
Christine Sutton, 62, editor of the CERN Courier, knew how to cycle but did not take it up seriously until much later in life. “I was over 50 when I became really committed to it,” she says and laughs, “In England, they call them middle-age men in lycra. Now I’m one of them, a middle-age woman in lycra.”
Sutton did cycle a little bit when she went to Oxford University to pursue a PhD in physics, mostly to the train station and to run small errands. “It wasn’t until I came to CERN that I got into it and started cycling for pleasure,” she says.
She began riding her son’s old bicycle to commute to work and since 2004, when she moved to St. Jean de Gonville, another French town near the laboratory, has been commuting frequently by bicycle. Sutton’s son, who is 30, often cycles with her when visiting and they’ve participated in races together.
“The shortest route is not interesting so I take the longer route, which is 11 km,” she says. When she converted to clip-in pedals, she got so interested in biking that she began cycling at lunch breaks and on weekends to try it out.
“When you cycle, you see so much more of the places you are going through. I ride as often as I can. Normally, I get resentful when I can’t take my bike,” she says.
Sutton has had accidents and one that broke her fibula, after which she stopped cycling when the roads were icy. Still, she managed to cycle 3224.61km in the last year just commuting to and from work. “I cycle a lot more than just commuting to work though. And when I’m back in England, where my husband lives, any time it’s not raining, even if it is only a few hours in a day, I’ll take my bike out.”
Sutton likes to go up the Jura Mountain to Col de la Faucile, a high mountain pass which has been included in the Tour de France route. She says she needs to stop twice to make it up the steep route and her personal challenge is “to go up the Jura Mountain without stopping,” she says.
“Why not cycle?”
Marc Magrans de Abril, Lead Developer and Coordinator of the CMS L1 SW online, cycles from home to work and back, a distance of eight km every working day, except when he’s ill.
And when the weather is bad? “Why not cycle?” he says, “If you have a raincoat and trousers, there is not much difference. If the weather is really bad, I, of course, take the bus.”
Abril is an avid sports enthusiast and likes to find ways to include it in his daily life.
“I do not like to drive and cycling is faster than a bus and sometimes even a car,” he says. Abril, who is from Spain, learned to cycle when he was a child but compared to Barcelona and Valencia, cities in which he lived, he says cycling on a daily basis has been easier since arriving at CERN. “Cycling in Geneva is far less dangerous,” he says.
“Heart is the muscle you should use”
Jim Cochran, deputy operations program manager of the US ATLAS, learned how to fly a plane in his late teens but by the time he received his pilot’s license, he had lost interest in flying. Later, he had a car but rarely used it. The one mode of transport that kept him going was cycling.
“Cycling is a purely mechanical thing, the rider is the engine. It is an elegant way to use and manipulate energy, a minimalist solution, and very efficient. And when going uphill, the heart is the muscle you use, lower gear and higher cadence,” he says.
Cochran has been cycling on a regular basis since 1985, when he moved to New York’s Stony Brook University to pursue graduate studies in physics. It was an eight-mile ride each way from his house to campus, and not the safest of routes.
“New York is not friendly to cyclists. I used to listen to audio books and music on my walkman back then. Once, in my rear-view mirror, I saw a van moving slowly in my direction. When it passed, I felt something hit me and my music stopped,” says Cochran. He regained his balance and kept cycling, till further down the road met a cyclist who had fallen off his cycle and his head was bleeding.
“The idiots in the van had thrown a garbage bag at him and stolen his walkman,” says Cochran, who recounts that he himself had had many things thrown at him while cycling to campus – cans full of ice, empty plastic bottles, occasionally a glass bottle.
“I was lucky,” he says, “New York has a lot of people, and therefore, more stupid people. It wasn’t a good place for cyclists.”
Cochran has a lot of bicycle accidents but none of them deterred him from the exercise. In 1990 he moved to Chicago’s Fermi Lab but continued cycling in all kinds of weather, doing careful research to keep himself warm and safe.
“I found out about saddle bags and got two for my bicycle, on a rack in the front and back. You cannot have too much weight in the back or your bike becomes swirly. A mountain bike is much more stable. But once you start cycling on a daily basis, it becomes inconvenient not to do it. Chicago has bad weather but there was no reason not to cycle most of the time,” says Cochran.
Cochran is also professor of physics at Iowa State University in the United States, and lives in Ames, Iowa, where winter can be particularly harsh. But he has developed the methods of cycling in bad weather to a fine art.
“If the winter is really bad, you can bike in snow pants. A rain suit keeps the wind out but it is not the most optimal clothing for winter. For icy weather, you can get toe shields made of neoprene. You can put them over your toes and socks and they keep your feet warm. Also neoprene face mask to keep face warm, and ear warmers, plus two caps to keep your head warm. Bicycle mitts for the hands, it works better than gloves,” he says.
By nature of his profession, Cochran travels a lot. In every city he goes to, Cochran takes pictures of cyclists. “Especially old people. To see an old person on a bicycle really warms your heart,” he says.
He has a bicycle in his office at CERN and a bicycle at home. He tells of other physicists who have bicycles in their offices for use when visiting instead of renting cars, “because it makes more sense,” he says. His own bicycle in Iowa is a recumbent that he bought in 1994 as a present to himself for having landed a post-doctorate position.
“I read a Scientific American article on how fast you can go in a recumbent. It covers more surface area, is more streamlined and uses different muscles. The shape of the recumbent is aerodynamic. On a normal bicycle your center of gravity is higher but on a recumbent, it is lower and very stable,” says Cochran.
What about safety? “On the contrary, recumbent bikes are very safe and on a warm summer night when you can see the stars, it is the most beautiful way to get home,” he says.