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Amusement parks are thrilling places to spend the long days of summer, but did you know that these parks are also huge physics classrooms? Most of the rides are built with the laws of physics in mind, and it is playing with these laws that makes these rides so much fun and so scary. A roller-coaster ride is a prime example of how the forces, energy types, and laws of physics are at work in amusement parks.

Many people do not realize that a roller coaster has no engine or power source of its own. In fact, most roller coasters are only pulled up (by a motorized chain) to the top of the first hill — the highest point of the entire ride. Its entire trip afterward relies solely on the potential energy it has gained by its position at the top of this hill. Potential energy is stored energy and has the capability to become working energy.

The purpose of a hill at the beginning of a roller coaster ride is to build up a storehouse of potential energy. The potential energy that is built by the roller coaster going up that hill is converted into kinetic energy (the energy of motion) as soon as the roller coaster, pulled downward by gravity, accelerates down the hill.

A roller coaster’s energy is always changing between potential and kinetic energy, with every hill that it climbs and descends. At the top of the first hill, there is maximum potential energy, since the roller coaster is at its highest point. As the coaster goes down the hill, the potential energy converts into kinetic energy, and the coaster speeds up. The coaster has maximum kinetic energy once it reaches the bottom of the hill. This kinetic energy enables the coaster to go up the second hill, building up its potential energy level once again.

The hills of most roller coaster rides get smaller in height as the ride progresses along the track. . The abundance of energy that was built up as the roller coaster climbed the first hill gradually dies out, and when the coaster reaches the end of the track, the energy storehouse is usually depleted. At this point, the ride is either over or is sent back up the first hill for a second round of fun!

Time for a Brake

Yes, roller coasters have brakes. A roller coaster uses a brake system in order to stop exactly at the end of the ride and also in case of emergencies. Unlike trains, brakes are not built into the roller coaster itself; instead, the brakes are built into the tracks. A series of clamps are placed at the end of the track as well as various select points along the tracks. A computer operates the braking system that closes these clamps when the roller coaster needs to stop.

Fast Fact

On June 16, 1884, the first true roller-coaster amusement ride in America opened at Coney Island, in Brooklyn, New York. It cost a nickel to ride and was an instant success, despite the fact that it only traveled approximately six miles per hour.