A YouTuber Bet A Physicist $10,000 That A Wind-Powered Vehicle Can Outrun the Wind

This decades-old debate is still generating heat, and it's about to get really hot in here.
Derya Ozdemir
Screenshot taken from Veritasium's video, showing BlackbirdVeritasium/YouTube

A recent video titled "Risking My Life To Settle A Physics Debate" 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, as reported by Vice.

The video's premise centers around a physics question that has sparked numerous debates for over a decade: Can any wind-powered vehicle go directly downwind faster than the wind itself? From online forums to college classrooms, the counterintuitive concept that 'something moving faster than the entity that is pushing it' has been discussed for years, sparking fits of rage among physicists.

So naturally, the bet is on if a wind-powered vehicle can outrun the wind itself, with some saying that it can, and some saying it can't. On one side we have Derek Muller, and on the other side, there's Alexander Kusenko, a physicist at the University of California Los Angeles, whose research work is well-referenced. 

According to Kusenko, the claim is just completely wrong, and he is pretty confident about it. "Thanks to the laws of physics, I am not risking anything," he told Vice in an email. "So, I could accept any bet, however large or small the amount might be." According to Muller, however, the wind-powered vehicle Blackbird he rode in the video went 2.8 times faster than the wind speed.

Blackbird, which is an experimental land yacht, was built by Rick Cavallaro, an aerodynamicist, avid kitesurfer, and paraglider to answer just this question. As Muller said in the video, "what its creators claim it can do is so counterintuitive that it seems to violate the law of conservation of energy."

Cavallaro and his team claim that their vehicle can go directly downwind faster than the wind itself, utilizing just the wind as a source of acceleration. Kusenko, and other scientists, say this should be impossible since it violates the laws of physics. As reported by Vice, wind-powered vessels may exceed wind speeds when positioned at an angle to the wind direction, but not when a vessel is perfectly parallel to the downwind force, the scientists say. You can see the full extent of Kusenko's objections here.

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However, when Muller put Blackbird to the test himself, he was convinced that Cavallaro's claim was correct. After the video went live, he was contacted by Kusenko, who was saying that the explanation was incorrect.

"The physics explanation was clearly wrong, and the experiment was not properly designed to answer the question they wanted to answer," Kusenko explained to Vice. "So, I sent Derek a friendly email pointing out the problems with this video."

The two, no strangers to each other, argued it out as all science people do, and in the end, Muller challenged Kusenko to a $10,000 wager, which he readily accepted.

This is where it gets really exciting: 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, and both sides are convinced that they are going to win.

Muller has the burden of proof on his shoulders: To win, he has to successfully demonstrate "a model vehicle with the same principle of operation as the Blackbird," according to the agreement.