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Thrills and Spills: the physics of rollercoasters

‘Who would have thought so much physics would go into a simple rollercoaster ride’

~Marty Jopson, The One Show, BBC

Trinity Fellow Dr Hugh Hunt explains on prime-time television the lure of amusement park rides and why loop-the-loops don’t knock us out.

G-force can be thrilling – although Dr Hunt didn’t look like he was enjoying rocketing upwards on Blackpool’s Ice Blast for The One Show. That might have been because his organs and blood felt four times as heavy as normal due to the extra G-force. And that was before the shock descent…

Dr Hunt explained the attraction, for some at least, of theme park rides.

It’s not about the speed but changes in speed, changes in direction, curves and loops – they cause G-force. That’s what we really want.

G-force makes us feel very heavy as we suddenly speed up and conversely very light as we crest a hill.

With special training, that for example fighter pilots undergo, humans can withstand as much as 10-G, but thrill seekers at amusement parks aren’t subjected to more than 4-G. That accounts for the particular shape of amusement rides. As Dr Hunt and the BBC’s Marty Jopson demonstrated on The One Show – using toy cars and microscope slides – loop-the-loops are tear-dropped shaped rather than exact circles, in order to reduce the G-force to a safe level. Dr Hunt added:

Given that Isaac Newton is one of Trinity’s most famous Fellows, it’s great that we can show how his Laws of Motion are put to such good use!

Notwithstanding a queasy tummy, Dr Hunt loved the experience.

It is so important working with television to explain everyday things – like what we know and feel when rollercoastering. Most of us are unaware of the important science behind fairground rides. It’s not easy getting this across clearly and engagingly in a few minutes but it’s a fun challenge. And all the more stomach churning when the director – predictably – asks us to do it all over again for a different camera angle!

You can watch Dr Hunt explain the physics of amusement park rides on The One Show, broadcast on 4 August, until 2 September 2016 (starts at 19:38).

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