A physicist and a YouTuber bet $10,000 on if a wind-powered vehicle can outrun the wind

A recent video by Derek Muller, creator of the popular science channel Vertiasium on YouTube, has sparked a $10,000 bet – with Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson as the witnesses. The bet is on if a wind-powered vehicle can outrun the wind itself while going downstream – a heated debate for over a decade.

On one side we have Derek Muller, and on the other is Alexander Kusenko, a professor of physics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), whose research work is well-referenced. To Kusenko, the claim seems plain wrong. However, according to Muller, the wind-powered vehicle, which he also tried his hands at, was actually 2.8 times faster than the wind speed.

The vehicle in question is the Blackbird, an experimental land yacht that was built by Rick Cavallaro in 2010, an aerodynamicist, and his team. They claim that the vehicle can travel directly downwind faster than the wind itself, without using any additional sources of acceleration.

It all started with a video titled “Risking My Life To Settle A Physics Dispute,” which Mueller posted on his channel. “What its creators claim it can do is so counterintuitive that it seems to violate the law of conservation of energy,” said Muller in the video. Kusenko, and other scientists, say this should be impossible. Wind-powered vessels can exceed wind speeds when they are oriented at an angle to the wind direction, scientists argue, but not when they are exactly parallel to the downwind force.

However, when Muller put Blackbird to the test himself, he was totally convinced that the claim by Cavallaro is true. When Kusenko saw the video, he contacted Muller, saying that the physical explanation was incorrect. The scientist duo, who had known each other before, debated it, and ultimately, Muller challenged Kusenko to a $10,000 wager, which he readily accepted. Both sides are convinced that they are going to win.

Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Sean Carroll, a Caltech research professor of physics, were invited by Muller to serve as witnesses to the agreement and participate in its ratification. The burden of proof is on Muller’s shoulder: According to the agreement, if Muller is able to successfully demonstrate “a model vehicle with the same principle of operation as the Blackbird,” he wins.

Preparations continue for the experiment to find the winner of this bet. It is currently unknown how long the wager will take to finish and when a winner will be chosen. However, both legends agree that whoever wins the bet, it will make for an invaluable learning experience.

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