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The Evolution of the Bicycle

Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson has said a good many perceptive things in his time. Here is one of his sayings that I had not come across before:

You can't possibly get a good technology going without an enormous number of failures. It's a universal rule. If you look at bicycles, there were thousands of weird models built and tried before they found the one that really worked. You could never design a bicycle theoretically. Even now, after we've been building them for 100 years, it's very difficult to understand just why a bicycle works - it's even difficult to formulate it as a mathematical problem. But just by trial and error, we found out how to do it, and the error was essential.

I suppose one of the complicating factors for bicycles is that they have to work in close conjunction with human bodies, with all their foibles and peculiarities. Anyhow, next time you see a bicycle, try to imagine it as the survivor of a process in which thousands of other "weird models" were weeded out.  Come to think of it, the cyclist too has been subjected to the same process but in their case many millions of weird models had to be weeded out (though, to judge from the cyclists I have seen, some of the weird models still survive to this day).

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