Bizarro bicycle

The mathematician Stan Wagon has created a bicycle with square wheels. It doesn’t work on flat land, of course — but it rides perfectly when you roll along a road made of of “catenaries”. And what the heck is a catenary? Glad you asked! As a story about the bicycle notes:

A catenary is the curve describing a rope or chain hanging loosely between two supports. At first glance, it looks like a parabola. In fact, it corresponds to the graph of a function called the hyperbolic cosine. Turning the curve upside down gives you an inverted catenary—just like each bump of Wagon’s road.

The thing is, you can create a catenary curve by spinning a square on its axis and tracing the trajectory of a point. That’s a little hard to visualize, but if you go to that page, there’s a cool animation showing how it works.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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