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The Real Reason Why Rollercoasters Can't Be Perfectly Circular

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The Real Reason Why Rollercoasters Can't Be Perfectly Circular

If you've ever been to a theme park and looked closely enough at the loops on a rollercoaster, you might notice that none of them ever form a perfect circle.

This can be pretty hard to spot when you're on the ride itself as you hurtle down the track at high speeds and get carried upside down before speeding away to the next twist or turn.

It's much easier to see during the long amount of time you'll spend waiting in the queue to actually get on the damn thing and you've read every single safety warning forwards and backwards.

While you might think a rollercoaster loop would just be a circle, because it's the ideal shape for going round and round, they're actually more teardrop shaped.

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There's a very good reason for that, and a lot of interesting science to back it up too.

This rollercoaster loop isn't a perfect circle, and that's a good thing. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
This rollercoaster loop isn't a perfect circle, and that's a good thing. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Unless you're playing Rollercoaster Tycoon, you won't want to build a ride which is designed to harm or kill the occupants, as that sort of thing tends to get you in trouble with the law.

With that in mind, a perfect circle loop is a nightmare for people riding the rollercoaster due to the forces it exerts on the occupants.

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Back in the 19th century, they used to build perfectly circular loops but then again during that time, they also stuck children up chimneys and thought the sight of a woman's ankle was the height of scandal.

These days we've wised up, in part because we now have a greater understanding of the G-forces a rollercoaster exerts on the rider.

According to Vox, a perfectly circular loop would exert a force of up to 14Gs on the riders as they went around it, giving everyone on board a huge risk of fainting.

For context, modern fighter pilots are only expected to endure forces of 10G for a short period of time with specialist training and equipment.

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The clothoid loop shape subjects riders to much lower G-forces than a perfect circle. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
The clothoid loop shape subjects riders to much lower G-forces than a perfect circle. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

In a perfect circle the battle between centrifugal and centripetal forces are pushing the rider into their seat at the bottom of the loop before threatening to pull them out of it at the top and kill them.

Too fast at the bottom and too slow at the top, the solution we found is to warp the shape of the loop into more of a teardrop pattern, which along with better building materials helps give riders an easier time.

With the development of a taller clothoid loop, rollercoaster riders are going to feel less like the laws of physics themselves are beating them up and more like they're actually having fun.

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Less round loops means less severe G-forces and a safer experience all round that's far less likely to make everyone on the rollercoaster faint or fall out.

If nothing else, health and safety will be glad we made the change.

Featured Image Credit: Alamy

Topics: Science

Joe Harker
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