If you're here for links, try us as an email.

If you came here for the links, TMN is better as an email. Try our Headlines newsletter!

The Non-Expert

The Coast Is Sheer

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we explain how to build a roller coaster in terms a young engineering student may not expect.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.

 

* * *


Question: I’m doing a science project on roller coasters and I wanted to know if you could answer a few questions. We need to interview someone. 1. How do you think of a structure for a new roller coaster? 2. How do you use the possible weight that’ll be on the roller coaster? 3. What factors do you consider when building a roller coaster? 4. How do you determine how much friction, inertia, speed, and acceleration before it is built? 5. How do you make the ride safe and know the people are going to be secure? 6. How do you determine how steep the first hill should be and how the car goes after the first hill?

Answer:


1. How do you think of a structure for a new roller coaster?

Remember, in roller-coaster design, gravity is your friend. Structure, as I’m sure we’re all aware, simply exists to thwart gravity, so we recommend using as little as possible. Ever looked closely at a roller coaster? Do you see brick? Stone? Concrete? Do you see where we’re going here? Pare it down, then pare it down some more. Those neat little twists, turns, and corners should give you a clue about the thickness of the steel. Ever tried bending a spoon?
 

2. How do you use the possible weight that’ll be on the roller coaster?

Possible weight has a multiplicity of uses. It’s a little bit like probable weight, and closely related to potable weight. The latter doesn’t have much impact on roller-coaster design (unless you’re building one under water), but think of possible weight and probable weight as two ends of a long seesaw, with ambition as the fulcrum and two little rubber bumpy bits at each end. We’ll call one of these hope, and the other disappointment. Start bouncing. See how hope keeps coming so close and then gets far away again? Try moving your ambition, and you’ll see that you’ll either get a lot of hope or a lot of disappointment, depending on the relationship between what’s possible and what’s probable. Now apply the lessons you’ve learned to your roller coaster.

3. What factors do you consider when building a roller coaster?

Factors are a bit like vectors, in that they can come from any direction you like, and often many directions at once. A lot of great men and women achieved a lot of great things seemingly by accident: the discovery of radiation, Tupperware parties, bird migration, push-button dialing. Rather than sit down and plan your ride from scratch, just get out there and do it. Inspiration will come from where you least expect it, so don’t forget to look behind you, except when welding tricky corners.

Studies have shown, repeatedly, how reassuring a Scottish accent can be in a time of potential crisis.But now that you’ve got weight and structure sorted out, be sure to consider crucial things like color. No one ever rode a pink roller coaster, but yellow is inexplicably popular. You might want some rock music to get people in the mood; ask a local band to come up with a song that accurately describes the factors, vectors, and ups and downs of your roller coaster. The vocals should reach soaring highs and scorching lows, guitars must crunch and clang like frayed steel girders, and the drums must sound like the angry and unstoppable march of time. Hint chromatically at impending danger. Lyrically, a combination of the words “up,” “down,” “around,” “love,” “town,” and “frown” have been scientifically shown to raise levels of adrenaline in rhesus monkeys. Those lab monkeys can’t get enough excitement, so don’t get too weighed down in metaphor (aside from the obvious).
 

4. How do you determine how much friction, inertia, speed, and acceleration before it is built?

There’s only one way to make friction, baby. But apart from that, why would you want to know such things? Isn’t half the fun of building something providing answers to the great, impenetrable unknowns? Would the Wright brothers ever have gotten off the ground if Wilbur had turned to Orville and said, “Hang on a minute, how do we determine just how fast we’re going to go?” Inertia, speed, and acceleration are extremely complicated concepts, so much so that most, if not all, cars have something called a speedometer that displays a combination of all three using a needle and some numbers. There won’t be space (and possibly not the budget) for a speedometer on your roller coaster, let alone 60 of them, so you can safely assume all these things are on a need-to-know basis.
 

5. How do you make the ride safe and know the people are going to be secure?

Safety is a mental state. Psychologists have repeatedly shown that the simple act of repeating the words “I’m safe, I’m safe, I’m safe” significantly enhances one’s feeling of safety. Once people feel safe, they act safe, and nowhere do you want people to act safer than on a roller coaster. So to get that enhanced mental state of safety on your roller coaster, make sure you get a good public address system and start broadcasting. Use flat, non-threatening vowel sounds, and perhaps even a Scottish accent—studies have shown, repeatedly, how reassuring a Scottish accent can be in a time of potential crisis. A jovial “keep yer wee limbs inside the car at all times or yer’ll get a guid skelp,” or “keep yer napper down when the machin’ does a wulkie or yer’ll boak” should suffice.
 

6. How do you determine how steep the first hill should be and how the car goes after the first hill?

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. Similarly, gradients are a bit like gazpacho. The colder the soup, the less you can taste. Build steep, and a lot of your other potential problems will just melt away, a bit like the first stage of a really good butter sauce. But remember, how the car goes after that first hill will make or break your coaster design. Good luck!
 

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell