Amusement Parks: The Physics Behind the Fun!
More than one million people flocked to the Arizona State Fair this year. They spent a lot of money and waited in long lines just to be able to go on rides that lasted only a few minutes or less. New this year was the Spinning Coaster, which went zooming along the track while the car was spinning around. What it is about these types of rides that attracts so many people?
Whether whirling around or flipping upside down, it seems that human beings are thrill seekers and daredevils at heart. You can be screaming forward at what seems like 100 mph, feeling the pull of 3 g's, and your stomach is in your throat. Suddenly it's all over and you're lining up to do it again. If you're not a fighter pilot or astronaut, amusement park rides may be the only way you get to experience a G-force effect.
Rides like this are designed to simulate danger and create the suspense of a perceived risk within a relatively safe environment. The thrill factor derives from the extreme sensations they produce. Many rides give people a sense of excitement from changes in acceleration.
Consider the roller coaster: it accelerates us upward one moment and downwards the next; leftwards one moment and rightwards the next. On some rides the thrill may result from high speeds or the illusion of speed. On other rides its due to steepness or a rapid change in height. Additional rides cause alternating feelings of heaviness and weightlessness.
With names like Zero Gravity, Hydroslide, Inverter, Orbiter, and Free-Fall, the science behind the design is often implied. But people usually don't take the time to consider the scientific principles that these rides are based on, in particular how the science of physics is used. Physics is the branch of science that deals with energy, matter, and motion. The laws of physics affect amusement park ride design in many ways.
How does a roller coaster stay on its track? How do bumper cars move?
What keeps a Ferris wheel from toppling over? Why don't you get flung out of certain rides? How do some rides get you from 0-60 mph in less then two seconds? From roller coasters to bumper cars to the carousel, physics is everywhere at the fair. Without physics, the rides would either simply not work, or people would be falling off and getting seriously injured or killed.
Amusement park rides provide a good study of Newton's First Law of Motion and many other laws concerning motion. They can be used to introduce such concepts as potential and kinetic energy, action and reaction, centripetal and centrifugal force, free fall, acceleration, speed, drag, friction, revolution, force, angular momentum, velocity, gravity and inertia.
We went to the last day of the state fair. While my husband and teenage son were waiting in line to ride the Mega Drop, a 115-foot tall free-fall tower, they noticed that no one screamed as it dropped. They only heard people start screaming after the big drop was over.
Wondering why that was, my husband and son tried to yell as they were dropping, but discovered that their stomachs got squashed during the drop, making them breathless and unable to yell. Do you remember making any similar observations?
If you missed the state fair and are not planning to go to a theme park anytime soon, there are alternative ways to study the physics of amusement park rides. You can build a K'Nex Ferris wheel or roller coaster model kit at home, or play a simulation game such as Sim Theme Park or Roller Coaster Tycoon. You can also observe many of the same effects on playground equipment in a community park.
www.fabbrigroup.com/products (Amusement park manufacturers site showcasing hundreds of rides along with their technical specifications and the emotions they are intended to produce.)
www.learner.org/exhibits/parkphysics (Interactive exhibit exploring how the laws of physics play a role in amusement park ride design. Learn about the forces behind the fun: roller coaster, carousel, bumper cars, free fall, and pendulum.)
http://physicsof.net/amusementparks (Amusement park physics.)
http://library.thinkquest.org/2745/data/openpark.htm (ThinkQuest: the Physics of Amusement Parks.)
http://library.thinkquest.org/C005075F (Theme Park Physics - bumper cars, roller coasters, free-fall rides, Ferris wheels, carousels, and more.)
www.wcsscience.com/amusement/park.html (Amusement Park Physics.)
www.gsu.edu/~mstjrh/physics.htm (Web-based Lesson: Amusement Park Physics.)
www.vast.org/vip/book/home.htm (This site discusses the principles involved in the design of a roller coaster and includes amusement park experiments. Lots of lesson plans, detailed instructions on building a roller coaster simulator on a magnetic chalkboard, making a Hot Wheels train, and a program for TI calculators to help design a simple roller coaster. You can download all of this information in Adobe Acrobat format.)
www.knexeducation.com (Download lesson plans on Roller Coaster Physics for grades 11-12 and Amusement Park Science for grades 5-9.)
www.funderstanding.com/k12/coaster (Online simulator for kids to design their own roller coaster while learning about physics.)
www.nolimitscoaster.com (Roller Coaster Simulator for PC and Mac.)
www.coasterdynamics.com (Educational software that combines the fun of designing a virtual roller coaster with learning physics.)
www.nsta.org/programs/laptop/lessons/h5.htm (Amusement Park Physics by Jerel L. Welker. This downloadable lesson plan from a high school physics teacher uses the thrill of amusement park attractions to teach students how to record and graph acceleration data to analyze principles of motion.)
Amusement Park Physics: A Teacher's Guide, by Nathan Unterman. (This book by a high school physics teacher provides a wealth of information for planning an amusement park study program. Complete with background information and student activity sheets, sample data is also provided in case an amusement park field trip is not possible.)
Roller Coaster Science, by Jim Wiese. (Learn about the science behind amusement park and playground rides. Discover why you don't fly out of your seat when amusement park rides turn upside down, why fun house mirrors make you look so weird, and more. Includes amusement park history and activities for roller coasters, carousels, swinging chairs, Ferris wheels, bumper cars, water slides, merry-go-rounds, seesaws, swings, slides, etc.)
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These pages are a continuous work in progress.