What is it about scientists and motorcycles? Is the idea of caning it helmet-free down the highway an antidote to the close analysis and hunched precision of the lab? Does the love of Harley-Davidsons on an open road somehow spring out of the exploratory dynamism of the scientific enterprise? Or is the boffin-bike nexus just down to the deep groove Easy Rider cut in our collective psyche?
It was Tim Radford’s stirring review of neuroscientist Oliver Sacks’s On the Move that kickstarted my thinking about the connection. In it, Sacks recounts his youthful immersion in 1960s America, notably the revved-up cultures of the East and West coasts. Here he took to motorcycles (and musclebuilding), as the cover photo of a young Sacks on a BMW in Greenwich Village — looking somehow both vulnerable and physically at ease — neatly reveals.
Sacks was then already a veteran of the road, and multiple biking accidents. As he tells in On the Move, he motored through several models as a London teenager — a BSA Bantam, a 250cc Norton, and finally a 600cc Norton Dominator. On this he managed both to ‘do the ton’ (hit 100 mph) and zip to Stratford-on-Avon to see the latest Shakespeare play. That restlessness, he notes, has also propelled him through his phenomenal career.
So perhaps the link between driven scientist and big bike isn’t so hard to parse. Certainly, two eminent geneticists — Francis Collins, US National Institutes of Health director, and Paul Nurse, Royal Society president and Francis Crick Institute director — are devotees. (Collins’s is a Harley-Davidson Road King Classic, while Nurse famously bought a bigger Kawasaki when he won the 2001 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology.) Experimental physicist Charles Falco owns over a dozen (and co-curated the New York Guggenheim’s blockbuster 1998 show, The Art of the Motorcycle). And IBM’s lead architect for cloud solutions, Lysa Banks, is no stranger to sprockets and kickstands.
Aside from such exalted hobbyists, there are scientists who gun the engines on work time. Giovanni Savino of Australia’s Monash University , for instance, has devoted his career to studying the physics of motorcycles. His unique interactive physics lab in Bologna’s historic Ducati motorcycle factory, Fisica in Moto, allows local high-school students to see physical principles in action.
Bikes have even infiltrated community healthcare. In April 2013, Nature reporter Ewen Callaway joined and filmed epidemiologists in northern Nigeria working on polio eradication under a programme run by the Nigerian government and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Using off-road motorbikes on the rough terrain, the team search for nomadic Fulani communities and check whether the children are vaccinated — mapping tens of thousands of settlements as they go.
Whether for escape or discovery — or both — the nexus of road and motorcycle seems to inhabit a key niche in scientists’ mental ecology. In a world where many opt for a desk toy or a run to spur original thinking, straddling a bike might look a little extreme. But as Sacks has wonderfully shown, it suits the supercharged mind.
Sample Nature Podcast’s Oliver Sacks special here.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.