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Introduction to The Science of Roller Coasters

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When it comes to roller coasters, there are two kinds of people – those who cannot wait to get on one and those who wouldn’t ride one if they were paid to do so. Ever since the first roller coaster opened for business at Coney Island in 1884, millions of people have lined up for a ride. But the antecedent of the roller coaster goes back much further in time. Its origin has been traced to Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796. She had snow packed to form a long slide with a few bumps at the bottom; she then would gather members of her court to ride down with her on a sled.

Of course, the ride she offered was much calmer than the three minutes of bone-shaking, terror-filled, stomach-churning fun that roller coaster riders enjoy today. That thrill-seekers ride these machines of their own volition, and pay for the privilege, astonishes those who regard such behavior as clear evidence of a masochistic personality. One such enthusiast, a mild-mannered computer operator, holds the record for riding the famous roller coaster of Kings Island, outside Cincinnati, known as the Beast: five thousand times and counting! The Beast begins with a long, slow, ratchety climb. This serves two purposes. First, it gives the strapped in occupants plenty of time to anticipate the moment when the cars go over the top. Second, by elevating the cars, which when occupied weigh fifteen tons, to a height of nearly two hundred feet, it stores up enormous potential energy.

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This energy provides the momentum for the rest of the ride. Even the most jaded riders experience a feeling of mingled terror and excitement as the cars make their first plunge downward. It is a sensation that has been compared to driving over a hundred-foot cliff. Straight ahead is a tunnel that seems to have no overhead clearance. The riders duck as they hurtle toward it at 65 miles per hour. But they clear it with feet to spare. The Beast has never decapitated anyone. The force of gravity felt by a person with both feet on the ground is measured at 1 g.

When a person rides the Beast, this is reduced to 0.2 g on the drops and then is instantly increased to 3.5 g on the upswings. This causes the weight of a 150-pound rider to go from 30 pounds to 400 pounds in a split second. Making sharp turns at high speed adds to the Beast’s excitement. Centrifugal force threatens to hurl the cars off into space. But since the track is banked at an angle of 65 degrees, all the pull is downward, keeping the riders glued firmly to their seats but doing unpleasant things to their viscera.

The Beast has wooden tracks, a type now considered obsolescent in the industry. These tracks give the cars a satisfying clackety-clack sound as they go over the joints, while the riders are maintained in a more or less upright position. Modern roller coaster tracks are made of steel, and the relative merits of the two types is a subject endlessly debated by aficionados. Some fans argue that steel is preferable for the tracks because of its greater flexibility. It can be twisted into loops, corkscrews, and other convoluted shapes the designers dream up in their pursuit of bigger thrills. But because the steel tracks are coated with neoprene, a synthetic form of rubber, the cars run smoothly and silently. This absence of sound is a major drawback, according to those who champion wooden tracks.

The names given to roller coasters – the Beast, the Cyclone, King Cobra, Shock Wave – suggest danger, an aspect of roller coastering that promoters understandably like to accentuate. In doing so, however, they are being somewhat disingenuous. Despite their names, roller coasters are safer than children’s merry-go-rounds. This is an indubitable fact well hidden by the industry but borne out by the relative cost of insuring both rides against accidents. People can act foolishly on merry-go-rounds, jumping on or off when they are in motion, for example. On roller coasters, the riders are restrained. Opportunities for reckless behavior are almost nonexistent. The odds against having a fatal accident while riding a roller coaster are about 100 million to one. But after all, the whole point of riding the roller coaster is to scare yourself to death – while knowing all the time that you are really perfectly safe.

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