We are all aflutter this afternoon with the news that US bicyclist Floyd Landis has continued the Lance Armstrong tradition by winning the 2006 Tour de France (or as Jen-Luc Piquant prefers to call it, "La Grande Boucle"). The Tour hasn't garnered much attention this year -- nothing like that generated by the FIFA World Cup, particularly in the absence of the now-retired Armstrong -- and was further tarnished early on by the suspension of several favored contenders in a major doping scandal. Nonetheless, as an avid bicyclist -- solely for pleasure, mind you, as I find any kind of competitive emphasis takes all the fun out of a nice sunny day's ride-- I've been following the saga off and on. (Jen-Luc only cares because she's such a diehard francophile.)
It's a shame everyone's been so disinterested, because this year's Tour turned out to be quite the saga. Sure, the doping scandal threatened to turn La Grande Boucle into La Grande Debacle, but the remaining riders pulled themselves together, and the US pinned its hopes on the 30-year-old Landis to keep the Armstrong torch burning. Landis rode well in the beginning, and was in first place when disaster struck last week: he faltered badly on a steep Alpine climb and dropped to 11th place. Rather than giving up, Landis proved he had not just the athletic ability, but also the heart, to take up Armstrong's banner. He fought back, and gave a stunning performance last Thursday to retake the lead, winning the grueling final mountain stage of the event by nearly six minutes. That didn't make him a shoo-in for winning the whole shebang, but he's done just that. Kudos to Our Boy Floyd!
In honor of Landis' historic achievement -- along with his dazzling comeback on the Col de Joux-Plane, he is also only the third American to win this prestigious international event -- we've decided to devote the bulk of this post to a brief summary of the science behind cycling. We are making it brief because it turns out there's a lot of science involved: everything from neuroscience and biomechanics, to gravity, aerodynamics, thermodynamics, and even a hint of materials science in the equipment and other related cycling gear used by top-of-the-line athletes. (Jen-Luc can't believe some enterprising scientist hasn't yet written a book on the science of cycling. In fact, she's considering slapping together her own book proposal, so if you've got a manuscript about this gathering dust under the lab bench, you might want to pop that off to your agent toute suite for consideration.)
Common sense indicates that the best place to start is how the machine itself, the bicycle, actually works. But frankly, although I love my Cannondale Bad Buy, I am far less interested than I should be in the nuts and bolts of how that Bad Boy works. (I get very interested when something goes wrong, of course.) Gear-heads who just can't get enough of those sorts of details can find out everything they need to know here. By far my favorite online resource on the science of cycling, however, comes courtesy of San Francisco's Exploratorium, which has an excellent Web exhibit exploring that subject.
I particularly enjoyed the section on aerodynamics and the discussion of wind resistance. This is something I routinely experience biking along Washington, DC's Mount Vernon trail. The wind is not my friend. Somehow it always seems like the wind shifts direction just to ensure that I must always bike into a head wind. It slows my speed, forces me to burn more energy (perhaps a good thing from an exercise standpoint, but irritating, nonetheless), and hurls a variety of flying insects into my face; some get in my eyes, or get caught in my teeth and once I accidentally swallowed some poor wayward gnat when I opened my mouth to warn a jogger I was passing on the left.
Admittedly, I really didn't need the Exploratorium to tell me that "the human body is not optimally designed to be aerodynamic," or that cycling into a head wind can be exhausting. But I found the exhibit fascinating, nonetheless, because even though most of us have experienced the fundamentals of concepts like wind resistance firsthand -- who doesn't "know" that the faster you go, the more wind resistance you encounter while bicycling -- that doesn't mean we've given much thought to what is specifically happening from a scientific standpoint. So let me indulge my Inner Pedant for a moment and point out the obvious.
There are two components to aerodynamic drag: air pressure drag, and direct friction (also known as surface or skin friction), and of those two, air pressure drag is the biggest factor slowing down competitive cyclists like Landis. It's similar in concept to the differences in air pressure that produce aerodynamic lift, except in this case, a "blunt irregular object" ("Hey! Who you callin' irregular?!?" blusters Jen-Luc Piquant) moving through the air at a given speed produces air pressures that are higher in front than in back. The cyclist is literally pulled backward as a result. There's even a handy chart that lets you calculate the aerodynamic drag and propulsive power for a bicyclist, although there is also a careful disclaimer stating that the chart is necessarily simplified, as there are numerous variables that can come into play. It would hardly be user-friendly to the target lay audience to take all those possibilities into account, so I applaud the Exploratorium's decision to Keep It Simple.
Thanks to the good people at Exploratorium, I learned that on a flat road, wind resistance is the greatest barrier to speed, accounting for 70%-90% of all the resistance a cyclist feels when pedaling. Gravity trumps it, though, when it comes to biking uphill. The effort needed to pedal uphill against the force of gravity "far outweighs the effect of wind resistance." I'm guessing Landis knows all about the strength of gravity, since it caused his near-collapse and precipitous drop in the standings. Even the mighty Armstrong has been known to fall victim to gravity's relentless pull on an uphill stretch. In the 2000 Tour, on the Cole de Joux-Place (the same leg of the race where Landis made his miraculous comeback), Armstrong nearly collapsed, losing a full two minutes to arch-rival Jan Ulrich. Being Armstrong, he recovered and pushed his way to the top.
We can relate, on a tiny scale, since the final stretch of the trail leading to Mount Vernon is largely uphill for a good two miles (trust George Washington to build his estate on a hill). Unless one is careful to monitor one's pace, it's easy to blow out your legs on that hill, which makes for an uncomfortable ride back to DC. Sure, Treehugger reports that the Worldwatch Institute has conducted a study and found that bicycles are the most energy efficient vehicles. Nonetheless, they are not perpetual motion machines, and they do require varying amounts of added energy drawn from the cyclist, who must in turn draw that energy via caloric intake.
If exercise-related calculating charts fill you delight, you'll find plenty of them via a simple Google search. My favorite calculates the energy requirements of bicycling, and can be found here. It's pretty in-depth and complicated, though, geared toward serious athletes who are obsessive about measuring and calculating every aspect of their performance. If you're looking for something a bit simpler, this calculating chart will help you determine the caloric intake required to power your forthcoming bicycle trip. (For a 125-pound woman, the caloric needs for a 30-mile ride are distressingly small, but I'm hardly pushing myself as hard as, say, Landis and Armstrong; I only average about 15 MPH. Did I mention I'm not a competitive cyclist?)
Finally, if it's the complex interaction between brain and body that interests you, head down to your local IMAX theater and check out Wired to Win: Surviving the Tour de France. Filmed in 2003, the film "explores the cutting-edge brain science through the story of the centenary Tour de France." The Web site includes all kinds of educational and outreach resources tied into the science behind La Grande Boucle. And there's lots of snazzy visuals, too. The folks at IMAX know their trade.
Cycling fan though I am, I missed the film's debut three years ago (some lame excuse about writing a couple of books). But I was handed a promotional packet about it when I participated last week in an NSF-sponsored workshop for public information officers responsible for generating coverage of scientific R&D, titled "Let's Hook Up: Connecting to Make the Best of Your Research Success." I was there as a panelist in a discussion on science communication. The gist of my little "presentation" was based on an earlier post I wrote on something I've dubbed "Mediagenics"; you can read it here. But I added a couple of elements, culled from the recent discussions taking place on various science blogs about the ongoing tension between scientists and journalists, not just the general public.
For instance, Orac at Respectful Insolence pondered the implications of a new survey by EurekAlert and the American Association for the Advancement of Science that found the second biggest challenge or frustration that reporters covering technical topics face is finding an "expert" in a given field who can describe their work in plain English. I agree with Orac that the dearth comes about because it is, in fact, quite difficult to boil down the complexities of cutting-edge scientific research in any field down to a level the general public can understand. I agree that scientific jargon serves a useful purpose when communicating with one's scientific peers, serving as a kind of "shorthand" to communicate complex ideas quickly. And I appreciated the fact that he recognizes his own tendency to unconsciously lapse into medical jargon simply because it requires less effort and he's feeling a bit, well, lazy. (For the record, I find Orac's blog eminently readable, with a very low Jargon-to-Plain-English ratio, so he's clearly doing something right. We need scientists like him speaking to the press, so I hope he overcomes his reluctance.)
One of my pet peeves as a science writer is researchers who can't be bothered to return my calls, or who schedule a time for an interview and then don't show up for it, etc. Sure, I know they're busy, but frankly, so am I, and there's no law of physics that states that a researcher's time is innately more valuable than that of a non-scientist. A bigger problem -- certainly from the perspective of the PIOs attending the workshop -- is that scientists are generally unwilling to undergo any kind of media training in order to publicize their findings. The reluctance seems to stem in part from an innate suspicion of the few scientists who do work to publicize their research in the media.
This is, to borrow a platitude, cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. One PIO I chatted with at the workshop told me about a disastrous attempt to set up an interview with an eminent scientist at her university. Said scientist was rude, condescending, even downright insulting to the reporter assigned to profile him for the local paper The story ran, nonetheless, but a year later, when the same scientist won a major award, the PIO contacted the newspaper again, and the reporter declared, "I don't care if he won the Nobel Prize, there is no way I'm writing another word about that asshole!"
Petty? Absolutely. But the eminent scientist's behavior wasn't any less petty and immature. Scientists need to get over this notion that it's somehow disgraceful or beneath them to be featured in any kind of popular media outlet -- i.e., anything that isn't a science journal. That's going to require a major paradigm shift in the culture, though, since education, outreach, or other forms of popularizing science aren't valued as much as research when it comes to crucial decisions like tenure. I have hopes that the situation will improve, since the number of scientists writing popular books about their work keeps growing. As Orac said in his post, "We don't all have to be Carl Sagan, but more of us should at least try to emulate him."
Of course, the onus shouldn't be placed entirely on the overburdened shoulders of the poor, non-communicative scientists. The other new element to my presentation came courtesy of "Dr. Freeride," who writes Adventures in Ethics and Science. She wrote recently about what non-scientists can do to improve communication between the public and scientists (relevant posts are here and here). To wit: "They have to listen to what the scientists are trying to explain. They have to ask questions when things aren't clear.... The nonscientists have to start being active participants engaged in a dialog rather than a passive 'audience' waiting to have the relevant facts poured into their skulls."
This is indisputable, except it brings us full circle to the fundamental problem: how do we get them to engage in this discussion with us? One solution: through providing a real-world context, like the Tour de France. (And here you thought I'd gotten completely off-track.) That's what's so great about links that the ones above: they use a sporting event to elucidate scientific concepts. So do books like Timothy Gay's The Physics of Football, or James Kakalios' The Physics of Superheroes (or my own forthcoming The Physics of the Buffyverse, for that matter).
So I think the solution to the problem is, conceptually, very simple. It's just extremely difficult to put into practice. For instance, often what scientists consider "lay language" doesn't quite cut it for the general public And it's far too easy for things like demos or films that emphasize the "wow!" factor of science to become mere entertainment, with students and laypeople having a good time and learning very little of lasting import. Still, I'd argue that even then, it's useful in terms of sparking interest to pursue something that intrigues them in greater detail. Education and outreach is an ongoing process, after all, not something that can be accomplished in the time it takes to watch an IMAX movie, for example. In the words of Dr. Freeride, "Like weeding a garden, you are never done." That's the challenge; I invite scientists and nonscientists alike to take it up.