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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.”

[rebelmouse-image 27087933 alt="""" original_size="800x600" expand=1]

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.

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How Brazil's Evangelical Surge Threatens Survival Of Native Afro-Brazilian Faith

Followers of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion in four traditional communities in the country’s northeast are resisting pressure to convert to evangelical Christianity.

image of Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Agencia Publica
Géssica Amorim

Among a host of images of saints and Afro-Brazilian divinities known as orixás, Abel José, 42, an Umbanda priest, lights some candles, picks up his protective beads and adjusts the straw hat that sits atop his head. He is preparing to treat four people from neighboring villages who have come to his house in search of spiritual help and treatment for health ailments.

The meeting takes place discreetly, in a small room that has been built in the back of the garage of his house. Abel lives in the quilombo of Sítio Bredos, home to 135 families. The community, located in the municipality of Betânia of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, is one of the municipality’s four remaining communities that have been certified as quilombos, the word used to refer to communities formed in the colonial era by enslaved Africans and/or their descendents.

In these villages there are almost no residents who still follow traditional Afro-Brazilian religions. Abel, Seu Joaquim Firmo and Dona Maura Maria da Silva are the sole remaining followers of Umbanda in the communities in which they live. A wave of evangelical missionary activity has taken hold of Betânia’s quilombos ever since the first evangelical church belonging to the Assembleia de Deus group was built in the quilombo of Bredos around 20 years ago. Since then, other evangelical, pentecostal, and neo-pentecostal churches and congregations have established themselves in the area. Today there are now nine temples spread among the four communities, home to roughly 900 families.

The temples belong to the Assembleia de Deus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the World Church of God's Power, the latter of which has over 6,000 temples spread across Brazil and was founded by the apostle and televangelist Valdemiro Santiago, who became infamous during the pandemic for trying to sell beans that he had blessed as a Covid-19 cure. Assembleia de Deus alone, who are the largest pentecostal denomination in the world, have built five churches in Betânia’s quilombos.

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