Thursday, May 14, 2009

3 Conversations With David Gordon Wilson : Part V

Here is the final installment in my phone conversation with Prof. David Gordon Wilson, author of Bicycling Science. Here, he narrows down his views on a handful of important topics : art and bicycle design, the helmet debate, bicycles in formal education, environmental issues, and a few ideas on a "progressive taxation" policy. Enjoy.

Q. Earlier we talked about how the bicycle, although a very stable design refined over the years, could use smaller improvements. But a handful of folks also imagine very radical designs altogether. We live in the internet age, and every so often now, we find some 'designer' coming out with an odd looking bike that has no practical value. Am I missing something? I guess what I'm trying to ask is should critics of such works forget about practicality and focus on the fun in the art?

DGW : Obviously, this isn't something that has begun now. Yes, we have had some impractical designs over the years that never made it. But personally, I have nothing against artistic designers. In fact, one year, when I was judge at the International Bicycle Design Competition in Taiwan, I noticed many of the designs actually came from artists. Sometimes, they can produce a good design. For example, take Sam Whittingham's Varna Diablo or Fred Markham's Varna Mephisto as examples. Both broke speed records and were designed by one man - Georgi Georgiev, who happened to study art and is an architect.

Georgi Georgiev, picture courtesy Varna Handcycles

I wouldn’t want to stifle innovation, but I wish there was much more attention to doing something about the many life-threatening problems with bikes. I’m about to write to the bicycle-safety person on the CPSC, the principal government watch-dog on the subject, to find why my earnest and expensive testimony on the topic last year has apparently been totally ignored. I hope that he tells me that something is happening, in which case I’ll let you know.

Q. One of the longest running debates in the world of cycling happens to be that of helmet wearing and its benefits vs the harm they cause indirectly. Its a topic that often polarizes people. Where do you stand in this debate?

DGW : Well Ron, if you're asking me whether I support mandatory helmet laws, the answer is no. I don't think anyone must be forced to place a lid on their heads. But I don't like my insurance money going to idiots who get injured and are now vegetables in hospitals because they didn't choose to wear one. That is ridiculous.

Q. ....Right. But what of the people who decry the use of helmets? Many at times, I find they base their views on statistics and you know, some sort of 'research' done by professionals in other countries. Among the most prominent studies were these Australian ones that showed how mandatory helmet legislation back in 1990's decreased the number of bicyclists on the road in the following years....

DGW : ....They are statistically incorrect.

Q. Another popular one seems to be that helmet wearing actually increases the number of injuries.

DGW : That's stupid. Its like saying that uniformed soldiers who go to war wearing helmets get injured more because they wore a helmet. Of course they got injured more. They went to war and got shot at! The others did not. They sat at home.

Besides, helmets not only protect you while you're riding but also when you're not. I remember an incident that happened with me not so long ago. I was at this busy intersection walking my bike. For some reason or the other, I felt a little heavy in the know...a dizziness. A little later, I fell onto the road. I didn't get too hurt. If I weren't wearing a helmet, I'd imagine something worse would have happened to me. Its desirable that cyclists wear helmets. But there are one or two everywhere who oppose it. Once, I visited Adelaide to present a topic on bicycling safety. The reception was very negative. These people aren't ready to understand the benefits of helmets for their own sake and the sake of others. Talk about the costs of hospitalization that others have to shoulder! Its not pleasing. I believe helmet wearing has a strong benefit-cost ratio, both for the wearer and to others in society.

Q. What courses did you teach at MIT?

DGW : I joined the faculty in 1966. I taught turbine design, heat transfer, thermodynamics, and the senior course 2.70.

Q. I think you can learn a lot of science and engineering from bicycles. Do you support using the bicycle as a platform for such an initiative?

DGW : Oh sure. I often did that in 2.70, asking students to improve some aspect or another of bicycles as projects. Frank Whitt supported that idea too, I believe.

Q. Really?

DGW : Well yes. He proposed that physics experiments be taught in schools and colleges using bicycles. I thought it was a good idea.

Q. Let's switch gears, Dave. The environment. Do you believe in Global Warming?

DGW : Oh yes.

Q. There sure is something about this issue that raises skeptics among people? I guess its happening in the world, but its not an "in-your-face" thing.

DGW : Well, that's what the Bush Administration did. They stifled the issue in front of the public. They also refused to endorse the Kyoto Accords because to do so would threaten the "American way of life". The cliff may not be seen now, but when it does arrive, it'll be too late to go back. Its a big plunge from there.

The issue is real and a number of people have written on it. Recently, I read Jared Diamond's book Collapse : How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed....

Q. ....The Pulitzer prize winning author..

DGW : Yes. And in it, he describes the massive deforestation that took place in Easter Island. Infact, he writes that the society collapsed entirely due to the environmental damage. Same goes for the Greenland Norse, the Mayans of Central America, the Polynesians of Pitcairn Island. Environmental damage slowly kill societies.

Q. I came across one of your energy policy proposals online on your website. In it, you write that engineers should take responsibility for the energy crisis...

DGW : Oh no.. at the time I wrote it, it was sort of a joke. Anyway, they do have a role to play no doubt. Civil engineers created construction systems, transportation systems, and water-supply and sanitation systems that enabled us to live in great cities. Mining engineers enabled vast quantities of coal, oil and gas to be delivered to factories and to our homes. Mechanical engineers invented steam engines, railroads, turbines, oil-field equipment, internal-combustion engines, automobiles, airplanes, and the means of producing these so inexpensively that we all feel that we have a God-given right to own and use lots of everything. Chemical engineers devised means of refining petroleum and gas fuels to drive all these types of power producers. Electrical engineers developed alternators and means for delivering electric power to us all, and information systems that, while entrancing us and bringing us closer together, increase the demand for goods and services and for ever-more travel.

Q. You also propose a "progressive taxation" policy.

DGW : Yes. Personally as an engineer, I like to come up with sound decisions that affect policy. You can read most of my ideas in the proposal. What irritates me is that no one has taken an interest to publish it. I proposed to MIT to have this out as a news release and they gave me a cold shoulder. Hopefully, I'll get more people to take interest in it.

Q. Perhaps I could do my part through my blog....

DGW : ..Maybe you can!

Q. David, I've had a wonderful time chatting with you on these topics. Its going to be memorable. You certainly have some sound ideas and I really hope that more people would know you, not just as a name behind Bicycling Science, but as a person. Good luck with your health, Wilson Turbopower and MIT.

DGW : Its my pleasure. Thank you, Ron.

* * *

Prof. David Gordon Wilson has written an energy proposal and a progressive taxation policy to go with it, on his website. He calls it "an innovative policy producing incentives for reducing the use of nonrenewable energy, of resources, and of polluting emissions, and which simultaneously increases employment, reduces poverty, and discourages illegal immigration."

It is a must read for anyone interesting in some stimulating ideas for our times. This, from a world renowned engineer, cyclist and author of Bicycling Science. Thanks for reading!


Conversations With David Gordon Wilson : Part I
Conversations With David Gordon Wilson : Part II
Conversations With David Gordon Wilson : Part III
Conversations With David Gordon Wilson : Part IV
Statisculation And Sporting Prejudice In Anti-Helmet Propaganda
The Design Of Advanced Human-Powered Vehicles/Velomobiles And Product-Liability Litigation : Can They Co-exist In The Light Of Apparently Outrageous US Cases?

* * *


  1. Thank you very much for all this information. I have been closely following the series and you've done an excellent job!

  2. Thanks for the great interview Ron. Lots more reading to follow up on now.

    Who's next?


  3. Anonymous8:06 PM

    I've just discovered this old interview. I must say, while I respect David Gordon Wilson's expertise in thermodynamics and bike mechanics, his views on helmets are very ill-informed. For example:

    He doesn't seem to realize that bicycling has never imposed an unusual risk of serious or fatal brain injury. He doesn't seem to realize that bicyclists comprise only about 0.5% of America's fatal brain injuries, and that bicyclist "vegetables" are similarly rare. He seems unaware of the several studies that found negative cost-benefit results for mandatory helmet laws. And above all, he doesn't seem to realize that his "If I weren't wearing a helmet" anecdote is a testimonial for walking helmets! The man was, after all, walking when he fell!

    Yes, pedestrian-car crashes and simple falls while walking produce TBI injury and fatality numbers that totally eclipse those of cycling. Wilson really should look up the data.

    Similarly, he should learn a bit more before he makes facile claims that the PhD statisticians who published refereed journal papers on Australia's mandatory helmet experience are "statistically incorrect." I seriously doubt he has the data or the qualifications to make such a statement.

    Can you imagine the reaction if a statistician with no engineering background proclaimed Wilson's knowledge of turbines "thermodynamically incorrect"? Would anyone take such a claim seriously?


Thank you. I read every single comment.