Shortly before our crazy biker pulls the reverse-Knievel—jumping far past the landing area instead of far short—we hear one of his compatriots shout, “You can go twice as fast!” This is a faulty hypothesis, as it turns out, but to the layman it would seem to make sense. After all, our biker had previously executed a graceful flop straight into the giant pit o’ foam. Doubling the takeoff speed intuitively should double the distance he flies, putting him a little farther into the pit but still within its bounds. Right?
Not exactly. Though it’s impossible to tell from the video exactly how much faster the biker was going on the second attempt, any increase in speed would be liable to have unforeseen consequences. That’s because the best way to understand how the bike flies is not with the concept of speed, but with energy. Why? Energy, as the lab coats like to say, is always conserved—and it’s gotta go somewhere. In this case, all the energy the bike carries into the jump is used to lift the bike however many dozen feet into the air before gravity puts it back into the speed of the freefall.
The funny thing about energy, though, is that it increases with the square of speed. That means that an object going twice as fast has four times as much energy, one going three times as fast has nine times as much energy, and so on. And practically speaking, four times as much energy means our biker is going to fly four times as high and sail four times as far. Exponents, like landing distances, tend to increase quickly. It’s important to make sure your foam can accommodate them. —Michael Moyer
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.