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Try to imagine Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei soaring down a modern roller coaster, robes a-flying and wigs a-waving.

The PredatorTough? I thought so. These scientific masters seem far too dignified to enjoy a long climb and a steep slope. Nonetheless, coasters are grounded on the principles of motion developed by Newton and Galileo.

The Predator at Darien Center, NY. Image courtesy of Robert Nagy.

Yet plenty of other people do appreciate coasters, which are the kingpins of an amusement park industry that drew 255 million visitors in the United States last year and grossed $5 billion. Coasters even have their own group of fanatics, listed on this loopy site.

In an era of particle physics and parallel computers, the roller coaster is a fiendishly simple machine. All it's got is car and track, gravity and momentum. The car, or train, stores up potential energy (defined). When it gets to the top of the line, it starts falling, and gravity converts potential energy into kinetic energy (defined).

To simplify somewhat, the best coaster is the most terrifying. Meaning fastest, and biggest. And the honor of building that machine goes to the Utah company that's been credited with bringing the science of coasting into the 20th century.

These folks -- who like to remain anonymous -- have gone on to earn the distinction of building some of the fastest and tallest (those qualities go together, since height determines how much potential energy is available to become kinetic energy, or speed). The Desperado (Who concocts these names, anyway?) outside Las Vegas has a total rise of about 209 feet, a length of roughly 5900 feet, and top speed of about 85 mph.

The design process begins with a client's requirements, says Todd Cutler, manager of technical marketing and sales at this elusive firm. In this case, passengers had to enter the train from inside the casino (We did mention that this is Nevada, didn't we?), and it had to be the fastest and tallest in history (Ditto?).

After a couple of months of discussion, the coaster-makers came up with the "single-line layout," showing exactly where the track would go, and serving as a basis for designing the structure to support it.

To arrive at a safe, but still exciting, ride, the designers must take into account several mechanical factors:

Why?

Why do people like to ride coasters, or any of the other nausea-inducing rides at an amusement park? Cutler, who has designed coasters for seven years, says "if you ask 30 people, you'll get 30 different answers. In my opinion, people don't always want to be in control, they want to let go. What it's going to do to you, it's going to do. You can't control it."

Cutler also mentions what he calls "the fear factor," but as a designer, he takes a different attitude. "To some people, coasters may seem like living on the edge, but to me, it's a design issue. The numbers say it's perfectly safe. I ride coasters every chance I get."

Check out the physics of whirling bodies (An old, Olympic-style Why File). Want some bizarre, useless facts from the glorious history of coasters?
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