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Q & A: First hill on a roller coaster is biggest

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why is the first hill on the roller coaster always the biggest?
- Anonymous
Great question!

Most roller coasters work by lifting the train of cars up a tall hill using a metal cog or chain mechanism which isn't very fast. It gets the cars up to the top, and the speed of the cars is very small during the lifting process and at the top.

The total energy of the cars at the top then is just the gravitational potential energy, which is proportional to the mass of the cars and the height of the hill. The constant of proportionality is the local gravitaitonal acceleration g, which is 9.81 meters per second per second.

This potential energy can be exchanged for kinetic energy at the bottom of the hill. The kinetic energy can be traded again for gravitational potential energy when climbing the next hill. The total energy never goes up, only down, due to frictional losses, and so the maximum hill the cars can climb gets smaller and smaller. Putting a bigger hill later on will only make the roller coaster cars roll back down the way it came.

Some roller coasters actually do have hills the cars go up and roll backwards along the track (I don't know if any like that are still in operation). The one I rode once launched the cars very quickly out of a horizontal station on the ground, sent them through a vertical loop, and then up a steep hill. The cars then rolled backwards from the hill, around the vertical loop backwards (!) then backwards through the station (with passengers screaming, scaring the people waiting in line), up another steep hill on the other side, and then back down to the station where the brakes were applied. It was a lot of fun, but a very short ride.

Tom J.

(republished on 07/11/06)

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