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Roller Coasters – Putting the Phun into Physics!

How much more would students of physics enjoy their subject if classrooms were amusement parks and they were studying roller coasters? Nowhere else would the application of physics be as thrilling! Take roller coasters;  visitors waiting in the queue, excitement mounting as they get closer to the front- but how many people look and wonder at the science involved in the creation of these amusement park icons, the roller coasters?

From the time that they first appeared in Russia during the 1800’s, to today’s state-of-the-art amusement park monsters, roller coaster designs  have been subject to the law of physics.  In the case of the ‘everyday’ roller coaster; a chain takes the strain, pulling the excited passengers to the highest point of the first hill, building potential energy as the roller coaster ascends. When the roller coaster crests the rise, kinetic energy takes over and sends it screaming downwards.  As it coasts up the next slope, the kinetic energy changes back into potential energy and so on until the dizzy ride brakes as it reaches the end of the course and the passengers, high on exhilaration can’t wait to rejoin the queue and ride the roller coaster again!

Science doesn’t just apply to riding them; it lies at the centre of their design. As amusement park designers and roller coaster engineers plan the next biggest ride, they are governed not only by the laws of dynamics, but the physiology of the human bodies which they will be propelling round their course. Acceleration stresses the body and so it must be carefully managed in order to make the roller coaster ride as thrilling as possible thrill whilst keeping the G-forces within a safe and tolerable range. The roller coaster designers do this by managing factors such as the heights of the ‘hills’, the mass of the roller coaster itself and the size of the loops.

So when people visit the amusement park and take a ride on a roller coaster, they can experience feelings of weightlessness or as if being pressed by a great weight; they can feel as if they are plummeting to the ground like Newton’s apple from the tree, only to then be tossed from side to side.

These forces can be manipulated by changing the position of the rider and even by using different materials in the construction of the roller coaster. As a result, amusement park thrills manifest themselves under the headings of ‘Flying roller coasters’, ‘Bobsled roller coasters’, ‘Side Friction roller coasters’ and ‘Spinning roller coasters’ to name just a few. Visitors can experience  forces at massive heights; one example being the ‘gigacoaster’- the Millenium Force ride at Cedar Point’s amusement park sends it’s roller coaster train soaring  over 300ft high.

So if there are groans of boredom within the class as it is told that ‘todays lesson is Forces’, let’s hope that the science teacher enjoys amusement parks and uses roller coasters to put the ‘phun’ into physics!

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