Campus Life St. John's College Annapolis The Program

Euclid, Ptolemy, Archimedes, and Bicycle Riding

By Audra Zook

“If I take the training wheels off, I might fall. If I don’t take them off, I can’t fall.” Such was my motto on bicycle riding when I was a six- or seven-year-old, until I had outgrown my Barbie bike, at which point my parents understandably were not eager to get me another one. Maybe it was four years of courageously working through the rigorous Program at StOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. John’s; maybe it was the fact that I was some fifteen years older, and training wheels would just look stupid. Whatever the cause, this summer I was willing to risk it.

It is often said that St. John’s prepares you for life, but did it prepare me for this? Unlike a Euclid proposition, I could not step back from my riding and figure out what to do next, for if I paused, I destroyed the activity. Yet every time I tried to move, the unwieldy system that was me and the bike tilted to one side alarmingly fast, prompting me to put down my feet at the very moment I knew I needed to keep them on the pedals.

I found myself thinking that the process would be so much easier if it were slower. Unfortunately, gravity doesn’t work that way. Unless, as I learned from Einstein in senior math, I could ride really, really fast, almost as fast as the speed of light; then, time would, in fact, slow down…okay, that was not helping.

I need to concentrate on the more immediate, I told myself. How to get a feel for this strange contraption’s motion. Perhaps the perfect uniform circular motion in which Ptolemy, studied in sophomore math, knew all heavenly bodies must travel? But it turned out that repeating “uniform circular motion” over and over in my mind wasn’t helping much either. The wheels could not help but move forward in near-perfect circles; it was the side-to-side motion that was lacking perfection.

Next thought: unstable equilibrium, from Archimedes in freshman laboratory. That was better. To keep something in unstable equilibrium takes work, like keeping a stick upright in your hand. However, keeping it in stable equilibrium is simple: let it fall flat. In short, I could not expect that balancing on the bike would be instantly intuitive. I was back to the necessity of taking risks again, despite my attempts to return to the familiar. I should not have been surprised—if my St. John’s education has taught me anything, it’s that understanding does not come without being willing to leave one’s comfort zone, whether that is a set of preconceived notions about justice or the idea that one is safer with one’s feet on the ground.

That is not to say that I immediately embraced the state of feet-not-being-on-the-groundness necessary to ride. It took six days of slowly rolling down a slope, each day waiting a little longer to hit the brakes, before the joyous day of my success finally arrived.

Yet once I had balanced, I could no longer un-balance, just as once you “see” Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean Theorem (that is, once you understand why the conclusion must follow from the proof), you can no longer “un-see” it, as any freshman will attest. So maybe learning to ride a bike is a bit like learning a Euclid prop. Maybe the Program did give me some courage I lacked before. In any case, I look forward to a life full of learning, always remembering that a little risk is worth it.

1 comment on “Euclid, Ptolemy, Archimedes, and Bicycle Riding

  1. Jeffrey Sonheim

    Now that you can ride a bike, take an intro flying lesson…and set yourself free.


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