One of my new favorite GeekGrrl blogs is The Mary Sue -- a tantalizing mix of popular culture, technology, fashion, offbeat humor and weird science. What's not to love? This week they stumbled across a fascinating project undertaken by the fine folks at Design Interactions Research, an organization that "focuses on exploring interactions between people, science and technology on many different levels." This particular "interaction" is the brainchild of Julijonas Urbonas, a designer, artist, engineer and PhD student specializing in the "gravitational aesthetics" as played out in "gravitational theater." He is also managing director of a Lithuanian amusement part, so it's only natural that his project is called the Euthenasia Coaster. As he describes it:
“Euthanasia Coaster” is a hypothetical euthanasia machine in the form of a roller coaster engineered to humanely – with elegance and euphoria – take the life of a human being. Riding the coaster’s track, the rider is subjected to a series of intensive motion elements that induce various unique experiences: from euphoria to thrill, and from tunnel vision to loss of consciousness, and, eventually, death. Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in aeronautics/space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasing, elegant and meaningful. Celebrating the limits of the human body, this ‘kinetic sculpture’ is in fact the ultimate roller coaster: John Allen,former president of the famed Philadelphia Toboggan Company, once said that “the ultimate roller coaster is built when you send out twenty-four people and they all come back dead. This could be done, you know."
That's right: A Killer Coaster! And if you're wondering whether an amusement park ride could really be all that lethal -- yes, it can, depending on the coaster's design, and Urbanos has deliberately designed his coaster to maximize the kinds of adverse physical effects other coaster designers seek to minimize. (Discovery has a terrific Website where you can try your hand at designing your own coaster.)
It's not just about speed; you need a smooth ride. Early roller coasters moved very slowly compared to modern scream machines, but even at slow speeds, a simple loop-the-loop can cause whiplash and other neck and back injuries. In 1885, the Flip-Flap debuted with a 25-foot diameter loop-the-loop, but it closed in 1903 because of all the injuries suffered by passengers because of the sharp, jerking motions. There's a reason modern looping coaster designs incorporate a teardrop shape; it minimizes the forces that cause such havoc with the human body.
Speed can certainly be a factor, as in the infamous encounter in 1999 between male model Fabio and a wild goose. Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, brought in Fabio for the opening of the park’s new roller coaster, Apollo’s Chariot -- he of the flowing blond locks, chiseled jaw and impeccably sculpted torso, best known for posing in strategically ripped shirts on the covers of mass-market romance novels, and for hawking butter substitutes on TV. And Fabio was game. But halfway through the initial 210-foot drop, a wild goose flew into the coaster’s path and smashed into Fabio’s face. The impact gashed the model’s nose and killed the goose, whose broken body was later fished out of a nearby river. Fabio ended the ride with his face covered in blood (whether his own or that of the goose, no one could say).
The so-called “G forces” describe how much force the rider is actually feeling: a unit for measuring acceleration in terms of gravity. It also determines how much we weigh, as opposed to our mass (how many atoms make up our body). Weight is determined by multiplying an object’s mass by the force of Earth’s gravity. The G forces arise because a roller coaster is constantly accelerating: forward and backward, up and down, and side to side. This produces corresponding variations in the strength of gravity’s pull. For example, 1G is the force of Earth’s gravity: what the rider feels when the car is stationary or moving at a constant speed. Acceleration causes a corresponding increase in weight, so that at 4 Gs, for example, a rider will experience a force equal to four times his weight.
At high speeds, those G forces can be considerable. Fabio endured a lot of ridicule in the media after his encounter with the kamikaze goose; people were amused that the 6’3”, 220-pound hunk fared so poorly against a 22-pound waterfowl. But assuming the collision lasted a hundredth of a second, and the coaster was traveling at a speed of about 70 MPH, Fabio would have absorbed the impact equivalent of a hard tackle by football hall-of-famer Mean Joe Green, delivered with a force equivalent to a solid punch from heavyweight champ Mike Tyson. Yet not one reporter ever said, “That Fabio, he can really take a punch!”
So yeah: your roller coaster has a dark side: accidents and injuries do happen, and coaster-related (human, as opposed to goose) deaths number between two and four per year. Compared to the hundreds of millions of visitors who crowd amusement parks every year, this might seem insignificant; fatalities occur for about one in 450 million riders. But the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission reported in 1999 that there had been an 87% increase in amusement park ride injuries from 1994 to 1998, which it attributed in part to the steadily increasing acceleration forces generated by the rides. The newest coasters can reach top speeds of 100 MPH with G force ratings as high as 6.5. For comparison, astronauts typically experience 4 Gs while traveling up to 17,440 MPH on liftoff, and NASCAR drivers have reported feeling dizzy after experiencing 5 Gs. Coaster designers counter this by pointing out that astronauts and NASCAR racers experience sustained G forces; roller coaster riders are typically only exposed to high G forces for one second or less.
Of course, one can't completely discount human stupidity, either. Some of the most spectacular accidents occur because riders ignore basic safety precautions. Removing the safety harness can chuck a rider out of the car and send him flying through the air at high speeds. In 1996, at Six Flags Great America, a man wandered into a restricted track area to retrieve his wife’s hat, which had blown off in the high winds. A rider on the Top Gun suspension coaster kicked him in the head, killing the man instantly. The rider suffered a broken leg. Six years later, a rider on the Batman suspension coaster at Six Flags Over Georgia leaned out of the car and nearly lost his head when a rider in a train traveling in the other direction on an adjacent track kicked it. The man who leaned out of his car was killed immediately by the impact. And in a bizarre incident in May 2003, an 11-year-old girl choked to death on her own gum while riding a coaster at Six Flags Great America.
But the Euthanasia Coaster seems to focus on the more insidious kinds of physical effects; some doctors believe that the sharp jerks and jostles of high-speed rides could have the same brain-battering effects as professional football. The strong G forces can cause headaches, nausea and dizziness – possibly harmless, but also symptoms of mild concussion – simply because the body doesn’t have sufficient time to adapt to the constantly changing environment.
The effect can be similar to what happens to the brain during a car accident, or when a person is violently shaken. As the head whips sharply back and forth, the brain can pull away from one side of the skull and smash into the other side with sufficient force to rupture tiny blood vessels. The trickling blood accumulates in the small space between the brain and the skull, and the resulting pressure can lead to permanent brain damage or death if left untreated. In the summer of 2001 alone, three women suffered fatal brain injuries on roller coasters in California, although two of those victims had pre-existing aneurisms – a weak spot on a blood vessel in their brains – which ruptured during the ride.
None of these dangers are likely to dissuade any diehard coaster fans; that's just another part of the thrill. But take it from Fabio: a roller coaster can definitely hurt you. And the Euthanasia Coaster literally wants to kill you. At least first, it will give you the ride of your life.