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Bicycle Innovation, Bicycle Design, the Laws of Physics and Imagination

Glenn Reeves

My starting point for this post is James T.’s recent post on Saul Maret’s “pliable” bike, a concept extension of the folding bike design. The idea is that it can be folded into multiple positions, and still be wheeled around when collapsed. This is basically just an idea, although one which is very well developed.

I was surprised by many of the comments, which dismissed it as an impossibility, many in quite a hostile way. This is not to say that they were not right–the arguments for the implausibility of the design stands at the moment are strong. What was interesting in the discussion that the post generated is that it revealed sharply contrasted positions amongst the discussants about the way that thoughts connect with the real world.

What added extra significance for me was the appearance of Timothy Willimason’s article in the New York Times at around the at the same time. In it he looks at the interplay between imagination and reality, the main idea being that imagination is centrally important in both relating to, and manipulating, reality, if I could summarize it like this. The article is well worth a close read.

For example, in dealing with a complex situation — and I think coming up with new and different designs for human-propelled transportation machines qualifies — the imagining of alternate possibilities works with what we already know to lead us to what we don’t know. It’s not that there is imagination or fantasy on one side and cold, hard reality on the other.

This whole scenario seems similar to the central and ongoing debate about research directions in Universities. Should research be narrowly focused on particular areas that serve explicit needs, or should researchers be able to wander freely in any direction that their imaginations and desires take them?

Personally I’m all for freely wandering since many unanticipated important scientific discoveries or insights have resulted from this. (This article goes quite deeply into the issues and processes involved in the movement between ideas and the different contexts that help them thrive or die).

Additionally, Albert Einstein, if I remember rightly, is supposed to have said that if unless at first the idea seems completely absurd and impossible, then just forget about it. Our understanding of gravity has been transformed since it is now widely accepted that this “force” is actually curved time-space, quite a wild and crazy idea at the time.

Perhaps this all may just reflect the reality of bicycle history in that the bicycle has basically remained unchanged since the advent of the safety in the mid 1880s–the basic design is hard to improve upon because it is near perfection.

It’s tempting to make a wobbly connection between bikes and sharks. Sharks have not only survived the dinosaurs but have basically remained unchanged; they have reached the extremes of possibility for their ecological niche.

Stretching this comparison, with the advent of enduring (bitumen) roads, a person riding a modern bicycle is one of the most efficient systems in the universe. Significant modification of the design is going to take quite a bit of imagination and expanding the realms of the possible to produce radical change.

I think Treehugger’s comments about the pliable bike summed up in “you have break a few eggs to make an omelette”, shows the spirit of openess to the potential of the imagination that needs to be nurtured and encouraged, however. Without this, there will be no progress.

I will be interested to see what impact the development of very sophisticated 3D printers might have in the future. I don’t think it is too far into the realms of fantasy to predict that, within a decade, any well-developed concept such as the pliable bike could be fabricated into a prototype within a day of the production of it’s final CAD draft. This may allow more rapid evaluations as to the degree of practical plausability of a such a design and others that would seem to be lacking in plausability at the time. I hope to put together a post in the near future exploring and speculating (of course!) on this general subject.

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