Roller Coasters as a Lesson in Physics

Geek Culture
Image via Wikipedia
Image via Wikipedia

There are people who are passionate about roller coasters, who travel the world to ride each and every one they can find, rating them and even breaking world records on them. I am not one of those people. I do, however, enjoy a good roller coaster. My older son may well be on his way to becoming one of the former, passionate coasterphiles, however, and I often get to join him as he tries new rides out. His favorite in all the world, so far, is California Screamin’ at Disney’s California Adventure park at Disneyland in California, and I’ve decided I agree with him.

California Screamin’ is not a radical ride, like many of the newer coasters that dangle people from overhead rails and fling them through corkscrew turns requiring chiropractic exams afterward. It is an homage to the classic wooden roller coasters of the boardwalk theme parks of yesteryear, whose most daring move is a single loop. But it’s a well-balanced, truly enjoyable coaster that encourages repeat riding. We went three times on our last trip.

As a fun coaster, it also works great as an education in physics. For all the important safety features, when you ride it, you’ll realize that they way it’s designed, if the roll bars weren’t there, you’d still never fall out (well, except maybe for the peaks near the end).  If you watch ahead of you as you ride it, you can see the superelevation of the tracks that means you’re pressed into the seat as you make the fast turns, and as you experience the loop, you can tell how forces actually work to keep you in the car.

So, like any geeky dad might do, I recorded one of our rides on California Screamin’ this year. Take a look, and see what I mean; watch the ride not just to see the fun, but to see the physics, too. And leave a note about your favorite coasters in the comments below!

[This post originally ran in 2013]

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2 thoughts on “Roller Coasters as a Lesson in Physics

  1. High School Physics Day at Six Flags Great America (Chicago). Building our own tools and measuring 4Gs at the bottom of the first drop and into a loop inversion on Shockwave (now scrapped). Best dad memory: my boys (8 and 7 two years ago) riding front seat on PowderKeg at Silver Dollar City in Branson, with me in the seat right behind them, screaming for my life!

  2. Interestingly, I am one of those people that travel the world to ride roller coasters and have set Guinness World Records on them (seriously). Thanks for the article examining the physics of roller coaster design – it’s a great idea for kids to learn about science in a fun way rather than just through text books.
    Feel free to check out the physics on my coaster videos

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