An Up and Down View of Roller Coasters
A scientific look at what causes those butterflies in your stomach

One the best feelings in the world is the surge of excitement that comes from driving into the parking lot of an amusement park and hearing the exhilarated screams of fellow thrill-seekers. That is, it’s one of my favorite feelings. Ever since I was little, I have loved going to amusement parks and experiencing thrill rides (except for that one time when I got my head stuck in the harness mid-ride). But despite years of enjoying them, I never put any thought into what actually makes roller coasters work.

There’s a lot more to roller coasters than just hot metal and grease! In fact, a lot of what makes the adrenaline junkie’s favorite Sunday pastime possible has to do with the forces and laws that God put in motion in His creation. Get ready for a wild ride!

First things first: Does anybody know where or how roller coasters were invented? If you guessed that they originated in Russia, then you are correct! The Russians were the first to invent a roller coaster—or actually, more like the distant, once-removed cousin of the roller coaster. On what was probably a very cold day, someone had the brilliant idea to make a sled out of blocks of ice or wood and speed down a large, icy slope. Sounds fun, right? It probably was—except for the fact that they had to plow through a pile of sand to slow them down at the end. Eventually, one thing led to another; more people became interested in the idea, some Frenchmen got involved, and the idea of the roller coaster finally evolved into … well, actual roller coasters. Over time, roller coasters became more popular, and the demand for new and more exciting roller coasters increased.

In order to design an effectively entertaining roller coaster, it is necessary to understand how they work. For the most part, roller coasters get their speed and power from inertia (the tendency of an object to stay at rest or remain in motion), gravity (the pull of the earth on an object) and centripetal force (the force that makes an object follow a circular or curved path). Roller coasters look a little bit like mini trains, but these “trains” don’t use engines to propel them. There is an initial motor that pulls the coaster to the top of the first big hill—that memorable part of the ride where you hear the clink-clink-clink of the track and smell the strong scent of oily metal while trying to keep yourself from screaming in anticipation.

It might be pretty obvious, but the first steep hill in the ride isn’t completely for the purpose of making you scream. The roller coaster basically runs on an imaginary tank of potential and kinetic energy. Dropping down that first big peak helps fill up the tank, turning potential energy into kinetic. Kinetic energy is essentially the energy that an object has because it is in motion. The higher the first hill is, the farther along the track the coaster will be able to travel because of gravity’s pull. That is why you usually see a loop occur right after a steep hill—because after flying down the hill, the coaster now has enough energy to travel up and around the circle. The hills in the ride start getting smaller as you travel further along the ride because your tank of energy is gradually emptying. By the time you coast to the end, you’re pretty much running on empty.

If you’ve ever ridden a roller coaster, you most likely already know how the roller coaster comes to a stop. The coaster itself doesn’t have brakes. Rather, there is a series of clamps on the track toward the end of the ride. Once the sad part of the ride comes—the ending—the clamps close on metal fins that run along the bottom of the coaster. The clamps then slow down the coaster, and it slowly comes to a stop. Much better than a pile of sand!

Now, let’s talk about all of those cool sensations you feel when riding a roller coaster. You’re mainly feeling the forces of gravity and acceleration when you are on the ride. The way your body handles acceleration is a bit peculiar. Technically, the force you feel when the coaster speeds up is coming from behind you—from the seat physically pushing you forward. But because of inertia, what you feel is a force pushing in front of you, driving you back into the seat. When you fly down a steep hill, the rate of acceleration gets faster and faster, making you feel like you’re going to fly upwards out of your seat. At the same time, gravity is naturally pulling you back down to earth, so you have two forces pulling you in opposite directions at the same time. There is a certain point when these two forces even out, and then that is when you experience the same weightlessness a skydiver would feel when plummeting toward Earth.

Now, here’s the really weird part. When the coaster accelerates and takes your body with it, every single bone in your body accelerates individually. Likewise, every muscle pushes against the other muscles, and every organ pushes against the rest, making your whole body move with you (thankfully). When you hit the “free-fall” point in a ride where it feels like everything inside of you is moving around and dropping, that’s because it is! Your organs are always pushing on you a little bit because of gravity, but when you dive down the steep slope, there really aren’t any forces acting on you because they have canceled each other out. Everything inside of you becomes buoyant, falling separately with your body. That is why you get that butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling when you’re experiencing free-fall. Your stomach feels very light because there is suddenly much less force pushing on it—like when an elevator drops really fast, or you drive over that hill in the road really quickly.

Whether you enjoy roller coasters or not, they still offer another interesting perspective on God’s creation and His mind. Roller coasters are only fun because of all of the laws and forces that God has established in the natural world. Without those forces, you’d go hurtling off into oblivion after reaching the top of that first big hill. God created speed, acceleration, gravity, inertia and all the other forces that are pulling and pushing on you. But you don’t have to ride a roller coaster to experience those powers that God created. They are in action every minute of every day.

I’m sure there have been times you have fallen and scraped your knee. As painful as it may have been at the time, that was the law of gravity acting on you! Can you imagine a world without gravity? Floating around aimlessly would probably only be fun for around three minutes—or as long as it would take you to float past the atmosphere into space where you would not be able to breathe. Those laws are there for our protection and safety.

So, whatever way you choose to experience that butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling next time, take a moment to think about all the forces that allow it to happen. And then think about the God that created them!