The Physics of Roller Coasters


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A roller coaster is a thrill ride found in amusement and theme parks. Their history dates back to the 16th century. It all started in Russia, with long, steep wooden slides covered in ice. The idea then traveled to France. Since the warmer climate melted the ice, waxed slides were created instead, eventually adding wheels to the system. The first roller coaster in which the train was attached to the track was in France in 1817, the Russess a Belleville. The first attempt at a loop-the loop was also made in France in the 1850s. It was called the Centrifuge Railway. However, government officials quickly diminished the idea when the first accident occurred. Inventors since then have continued to capitalize on people’s love of a great thrill, always trying to make them bigger, faster and scarier!
“Even though roller coasters propel you through the air, shoot you through tunnels, and zip you down and around many hills and loops, they are quite safe and can prove to be a great way to get scared, feel that sinking feeling in your stomach, and still come out of it wanting to do it all over again (1).” Thanks to the manipulation of gravitational and centripetal forces humans have created one of the most exhilarating attractions. Even though new roller coasters are created continuously in the hope to create breathtaking and terrifying thrills, the fundamental principles of physics remain the same. A roller coaster consists of connected cars that move on tracks due to gravity and momentum. Believe it or not, an engine is not required for most of the ride. The only power source needed is used to get to the top first hill in order to obtain a powerful launch. Physics plays a huge part in the function of roller coasters. Gravity, potential and kinetic energy, centripetal forces, conservation of energy, friction, and acceleration are some of the concepts included.
“A roller coaster is essentially a gravity-powered train (2).” Gravity is the weakest of the four physical forces, but when it comes to roller coasters, it is the dominant one. It is the driving force and what accelerates the train through all the turns and twists. Gravity is what applies a constant downward force on the cars. The deceleration or acceleration mostly depends on the inclination of the angle relative to the ground. The steeper the slope is, the greater the acceleration, and vice versa.

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The tallest hill of the entire ride is the first one. Here is where the ride gets all of its potential energy. The higher the lift is, the greater the amount of stored energy. As you start going down the first hill, that gravitational potential energy becomes kinetic energy and the train speeds up. The farther you go down the hill, the more potential energy is changed into kinetic. As you go up the next hill, kinetic energy is then changed again into potential, which is why it slows down. Roller coasters work due to this constant conversion of energies. Surprisingly, the total energy doesn't decrease or increase; it just continuously changes from one form to the other. However, it is important to take friction and air resistance into account since it is the reason why the energy is gradually lost. This is why each successive hill is lower than the other in order for the coaster to be able to make it over the peak!
Ideally, mechanical energy would be conserved during the whole roller coaster ride. However, thanks to friction and other dissipative forces, it is impossible for the train to have enough energy to make it back up the original lift hill's height. Friction is a type of nonconservative forces, which are the ones that cause a change in total mechanical energy. The friction between the air, train, and tracks take energy out of the system. This is the reason why the train slows down and why heat and sound are created. The effect of friction is most noticeable at the end of the ride, when all of the kinetic energy is destroyed by the use of breaks. The brakes consist of clamps built directly into the track itself. “At the end of the track, and at other points along it, there are series of vertical fins which hit against the bottom of the car when it’s time for the roller coaster to stop (3).” The fins cause the friction necessary to stop the ride.
Another concept included in the function of roller coasters is inertia and centripetal force.
Roller coasters have always been something that caught my interest. Ever since I was a young girl, I have been attracted to those huge infrastructures that looked extremely petrifying. I was always curious on how they were so popular yet looked so dangerous. My first experience in a roller coaster was formidable, in a way I wanted to ride it over and over again. When my physics teacher announced that we could choose to write on a topic free of out interest, I immediately thought of roller coasters. After learning so much about them, I can’t wait to ride another one and fully understand what is happening at the moment.



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