Fun and physics collide on field trip as Maryland students study science

September 28, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

HERSHEY, Pa. -- It was not your typical physics class.

"WE'RE GOING TO DIE!!" bellowed Eric Lazerow, 11, with a mixture of terror and relish, as Hershey Park's Trailblazer roller coaster plummeted, swerved and spiraled at dizzying speeds.

The sixth-grader joined the first Maryland Science Center field trip to study the physics of amusement park rides, part of an effort to interest youths in science. He was supposed to be looking at a lead-weight and rubber-band contraption he built to measure vertical acceleration, or G-forces.

But in the rush of adrenalin, he ignored the device. Mostly, he yelled with his eyes closed.

"Corkscrew! . . . We're GOING TO HIT!"

Eric's neighbor, Esti Gerson, 13, a student at Pikesville High School and a veteran coaster rider, was cooler. As the ninth-grader spun through the upside-down loop of the SooperdooperLooper roller coaster, she braced a clear, U-shaped plastic tube embedded in a white card against the bar in front of her. Inside the tube were a couple of beads of lead shot, which were designed to slide from side to side to measure lateral acceleration.

The beads barely wiggled as the car spun through the loop. But as the coaster screamed around a turn, she called out a measurement equal to .5 G's of lateral force. One "G" is the force of gravity at the surface of the Earth. (Esti and her seat mate, Zachary Wilcock, 10, also achieved momentary weightlessness as the 9,400-pound coaster reached the top of the loop.)

"It's hard. You have to keep it [the accelerometer] level with the ground, but you're always turning," she said.

How did she find the discipline to concentrate? "I didn't want to see what was coming up next, so I kept looking at the card," she said.

Eric and Esti were among 16 adults and youngsters age 8 to 13 who swirled, swerved, spun and screamed at Hershey Park on Sept. 19, all in the name of science. But it wasn't all fun and games.

The previous Thursday evening, they came to the Inner Harbor sci

ence center for an hourlong lecture on some of the principles they would see demonstrated at the park: potential and kinetic energy, friction, inertia, gravity and acceleration.

"So much physics involved"

"There is so much physics involved and so much engineering," said Chris Carver, a 24-year-old physics teacher at Severna Park High School. Mr. Carver talked about the G-force and inertia generated by these hellish machines with a mischievous grin during the Thursday class.

At the park on Saturday, he gave a brief lecture before each ride, and asked questions afterward.

"So many basic concepts in physics are used" in amusement parks, he said.

"You cannot only absorb those concepts, you can also do it having a good time," he added.

In recent years, a number of amusement parks around the country have begun sponsoring physics days, as a way of luring teachers and students to the park during the school year.

The science center decided to get into the act this fall.

The center's trip attracted fewer participants than had been hoped. But Terry Nixon, the center's director of public programs, said another trip may be scheduled next year if there is enough interest and money in his budget to organize one.

"There's a real aversion to science in this country," Mr. Nixon said. "We want to overcome that and show that science can be a lot of fun."

After arriving at the park, the science center crew strolled up to the park's merry-go-round.

The ride was probably the least hair-raising of the day. But the physics seemed tough.

Using their accelerometers, the kids felt thrown outward and the lead beads inside their U-shaped plastic tubes swung to the outside. Most people would explain this as the result of centrifugal force. But to physicists, Mr. Carver shouted above the music of the calliope, there is no such thing.

LTC Actually, the merry-go-round riders are accelerating toward the center of the spinning ride, he said, because of the centripetal force that pulls in an object in circular motion.

This appeared to flummox some of the would-be physicists.

Think of it this way, he explained. If you hold a ball on a string inside an accelerating car, the ball will swing backward, opposite the direction of acceleration.

Likewise, on the merry-go-round, a ball on a string -- or the lead shot in the accelerometers -- will fly outward, opposite the direction of acceleration.

What makes merry-go-round riders feel as though they are being pulled outward?

Think about swinging a ball around your head on the end of a string, he said.

When you let go of the ball, he explained, it will continue in a straight line in the direction it was headed when it was released. It does not fly directly away from the person swinging it.

This is the ball's inertial motion, a product of Newton's first law, which says in part that an object in motion tends to continue in motion at constant speed in a straight line.

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