What does “Critical Mass” mean to you?

If you played word association with Joe and Jane Random, how would they respond to Critical Mass?

In 1934, Hungarian phycisist Leó Szilárd filed his patent for a neutron-induced nuclear chain reaction and introduced the concept of “critical mass.” The critical mass is the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction.

Nearly 60 years later, bike designer George Bliss remarked in a documentary that bicycles would queue up at intersections in large Chinese cities until they built up to a “critical mass,” when they would proceed safely across en masse. San Francisco cyclists soon applied that name for their monthly “Commute Clog” ride.

More recently, other large spontaneous group rides began to appear. “Bike Party” is among the more popular of these offshoots from Critical Mass. How do the two compare in Google Trends over the past nine years?


Google Trends: Critical Mass, etc

The problem with my quick comparison: We really don’t know the context when people search for “Critical Mass.” Do they want an online guide to building weapons of mass destruction? Do they mean “critical mass” in terms of a tipping point? Or do they look for information on the monthly bike rides? All I know is that incognito search on Google results mostly in bike ride results.

You’ll see I’ve compared against “Bike Party” and “Martyn Ashton.” To me, Bike Party is the monthly celebration of cycling that now occurs in several cities around the world. Martyn Ashton’s “Road Bike Party” trials riding video skewed the search results late in 2012. We can see significantly more interest in his sequel video, represented by the yellow line going sharply up at the right side of the above graph.

Something else interesting: We have searches for “critical mass” (in English) in Leó Szilárd’s home country of Hungary at 10 times the levels we see in America. Furthermore, we see this interest peaks suddenly and dramatically every April and September.

Google Trends: Critical Mass, etc

What is going on? Do Hungarian children learn about their countryman’s role in developing nuclear physics? Do they test on the topic every Spring and Autumn?

I dug around and learned Hungary claims the world’s largest Critical Mass ride with tens of thousands of riders. Interest and participation is very high.

Digging more, this Hungarian Critical Mass is an organized biannual ride with official road closures. It seems akin to something like Chicago’s Bike the Drive, the Five Boro Tour in New York City, or even a bike-centric Ciclovia type of event.

What does Critical Mass mean to you?

Americans variously see Critical Mass as a spontaneous celebration of bikes, a protest against automotive culture, or a group of scofflaws on bikes causing trouble and giving cyclists a bad name. In Hungary — the country of the nuclear physicist who invented the term — Critical Mass is an organized celebration of bikes on roads officially closed from traffic.