Seven bikes lean against the wall of Jim Papadopoulos’s basement in Boston, Massachusetts. Their paint is scratched, their tyres flat. The handmade frame that he got as a wedding present is coated in fine dust. “I got rid of most of my research bikes when I moved,” he says. The bicycles that he kept are those that mean something to him. “These are the ones I rode.”
Papadopoulos, who is 62, has spent much of his life fascinated by bikes, often to the exclusion of everything else. He competed in amateur races while a teenager and at university, but his obsession ran deeper. He could never ride a bike without pondering the mathematical mysteries that it contained. Chief among them: What unseen forces allow a rider to balance while pedalling? Why must one initially steer right in order to lean and turn left? And how does a bike stabilize itself when propelled without a rider?
He studied these questions intensely as a young engineer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. But he failed to publish most of his ideas — and eventually drifted out of academia. By the late 1990s, he was working for a company that makes the machines that manufacture toilet paper. “In the end, if no one ever finds your work, then it was pointless,” he says.