Reading bicycle tracks

You might have come across real life accounts of how a seasoned hunter can read the pug-marks of animals and figure out surprising amount of information from them, quite Sherlock Holmes style. Now move this scenario to the concrete jungle and consider the case where you are given track marks of a bicycle wheels, can you figure out which way was the bicycle moving?

In the book “Genius at Play”, a biography of John Conway, Siobhan Roberts discusses an interesting problem. For one of the classes, Conway and his co-teachers rode bicycles on large rolls of paper and handed out the resulting tracks to the students to analyze and figure out which way the bicycle moved.

There is an easy algorithm to answer the question, which has to do with curvature of the tracks and drawing tangents and measuring distances along them.

Notice that the track made by the front wheel always has a larger curvature because when a turn is being made by the front wheel, the back-wheel is free to move only along the direction of the bicycle.

If you draw a tangent to a point P on the track made by the back-wheel of the bicycle, then the direction of the tangent shows the direction of the velocity of the back-wheel. Since this velocity is along the direction of the bicycle frame, if one moves along the tangent, there has to be a point on the outer (front-wheel) track which is exactly at the distance between the two contact points of the wheel. Thus the direction along the tangent in which the distance between the contact point P (on the inner curve) and the point on the outer curve Q stay the same, no matter which point P you choose, is the direction of motion of the bicycle.

Author: strangeset

A nomad at heart, I enjoy observing, analysing, connecting, understanding and dreaming. I am a big fan of science and tech. Forever learning and experimenting.

One thought on “Reading bicycle tracks”

  1. There is something so philosophical in this! I study philosophy, and while I’m pretty bad at math, I have to admit the beauty in all its forms and concepts.
    No wonder a lot of philosophers were also mathematicians.
    A very interesting read!

    Liked by 1 person

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