July 5, 2023

UCalgary physics and astronomy prof unpacks the science behind your favourite midway ride

Phil Langill explains the physics that thrill rides employ to mess with your mind
Calgary Stampede
Riley Brandt, University of Calgary files

As Stampede 2023 gets ready to kick off, thrill-seekers will once again flock to the midway to enjoy all the spinning, twisting, and flying the rides have to offer.

From roller coasters to rocking pirate boats, thrill rides offer their human riders a whole lot of mind games and exact science.

“The rides try to play with your psychological being,” says Dr. Phil Langill, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UCalgary.

While different people may gravitate toward different types of rides, the science behind the thrills is relatively the same.

It all comes down to weight

“The physics are not all that different,” says Langill. “It’s all about getting your body to contort in some strange way you’re not used to and get you a little bit out of your comfort zone.”

The science of rides all comes down to one thing: weight. Rides will either try to make you feel heavier or lighter than you normally feel. But how do they do that?

It first requires an understanding of what weight really is. Weight from a physics point of view is a measure of how hard the world is pushing on your body.

You may be sitting in a chair reading this right now. The chair you’re sitting in is pushing on you with a certain force, and because you’re sitting relatively still in the chair, that is equal to the force you’re applying to the chair.

In your mind, you think weight is the force you’re applying to the chair, but physically what you’re feeling is the chair pushing back on you. In everyday circumstances, those two forces are always equal.

“This thing is called apparent weight,” explains Langill. “It is a measure of how hard the world pushes on our bodies.”

The experience — and the reality

When you get into a ride, it is designed in such a way where the seat you’re in pushes much harder or much lighter on you, making you experience a sense of heaviness or lightness.

As a ride experience, this translates to a feeling of being smashed into your seat and unable to move, or like you’re going to fall out of the ride altogether.

No ride, however, can make you feel truly weightless by applying no force to you at all.

“Rides will take you to the edge of being weightless, but they never actually take you to weightlessness. If they did that, there’s no way for the ride to control you anymore and then there’s a safety issue.”

Phil Langill

No matter what ride you’re on, there will always be some level of force applied to you to control your motion.

Thanks to these neat laws of physics, the safety belts and bars that rides employ are just gravy.

Ride with caution

“Well-engineered rides can keep you safe without seat belts,” says Langill. “But they make you wear them because people do stupid things on rides, like try to stand up or put their arms outside.”

The important thing to remember when you’re cruising the midway is to know the limits to what your body can take so you don’t run the risk of passing out or ruining your freshly polished cowboy boots with the half-digested mini donuts you ate before hitting the rides.

“Ride with caution,” says Langill. “Don’t push yourself over your own personal limit.”

Sign up for UToday

Sign up for UToday

Delivered to your inbox — a daily roundup of news and events from across the University of Calgary's 14 faculties and dozens of units

Thank you for your submission.