LE MONDE

French Physicists Explore The Science Of A Cowboy's Lasso

How does it twirl? Why does it loop? An American cowboy might take it all for granted. But a French team has explored how the laws of physics can explain this common thread.

Lasso science
Lasso science
David Larousserie

PARIS — Cowboys are alive and well, and not only in the United States. You can find three of them twirling their lassos in the middle of a Parisian physics laboratory.

Basile Audoly, Pierre-Thomas Brun and Neil Ribe, all French scientists, made the trip to Denver, Colorado in March to present their theory of “lasso art” at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society.

Audoly, Brun and Ribe call it “art,” as they chose to explore the aesthetic aspect of lassoing rather than its professional dimension — catching cattle. The scientists wanted to understand how one can perform such tricks as the “flat loop” — a horizontal spinning loop — the “vertical loop” or the well-known but complex “text skip,” in which the cowboy jumps back and forth through a large vertical loop.

The researchers pushed scientific precision to another level. They first consulted with Jesus Garcilazo, a Mexican professional working at Disneyland Paris. After initial trials with a small chain and some tape to close the loop, they finally bought a proper rope in the U.S.

Audoly, Brun and Ribe then built a rather basic robot able to spin a lasso. They found in Denver another cowboy to work with: Craig Ingram, now popular for his prowess in lasso tricks.

But the scientists’ interests go much further than the art of lasso spinning. The three of them are all specialists in “elastic and hanging threads.” This includes hair, trickles of honey, transatlantic submarine communications cable or even DNA molecules. Lassos are another example of this type of threads, with the distinctive feature of having a closing loop.

“It’s a well-known object yet there was no scientific research on it,” said Pierre-Thomas Brun, one of the researchers. "There is a fundamental interest in understanding why such different objects behave in similar ways.”

How does it twirl? — Photo: Véronique PAGNIER

The researcher explained that the answers lie within the objects’ geometry and its relation with their dynamics. "The lasso gives us the opportunity to better understand these threads," he said.

After hours of practice — manually and with the robot — the French scientists confirmed the theory that three shapes appear depending on the rotation speed. The first one is a curved shape that looks like an elbow, in which the loop is closed and horizontal. The second one makes the rope look like a clothes hanger, with an open but vertical loop. The last one — the one researchers seek to achieve — is called “the flat shape,” in which the loop is open and horizontal.

In the end, the amplitude of the movement doesn’t matter much. The other factor to take into account is the length of the loop, which can be adjusted with a slipknot. The study predicts the favorable conditions needed to create the “flat loop”: Spin the rope twice per second, with at least 70% of the rope in the loop. "The typical beginner’s mistake is to start with a loop that is too small," Brun said. Don’t expect to make it work with less than a rotation a second. Another trick is to frequently untwist the rope with a small wrist movement, so as to prevent it from being completely tangled like old telephone cords.

“We didn’t do all of that just for pleasure. The most basic equations, which aren’t that complicated to pose, are difficult to solve in practice and remain poorly understood,” Brun said. “The lasso became a model problem to help us ask the fundamental questions. The study enables us to learn more about these equations.”

“The philosophy behind it is to use simple objects to get a sense of what is important in the abstract equations that describe them,” said Dominic Vella, a lecturer at Oxford University. Instead of catching cattles, the scientists caught realities that, until now, had eluded them.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ