Physics Day at Magic Mountain : Rides Give Homework a New Spin

Times Staff Writer

Tracy Canter, a junior at Cal State Northrige, must take physics to complete her computer science major. She took the course at Pierce College, however, because she thought the intimidating subject would be easier there. Still, she said, she has found it difficult to grasp many of the concepts presented in the class.

But acceleration, gravity and centripetal force became a little clearer to her and nearly 8,000 physics students from more than 200 high schools and local colleges Sunday during Magic Mountain’s eighth annual Physics Day.

“You get to see how these ideas really work,” Canter said. “Instead of being abstract concepts, you see them in real situations. It helps you understand.”

Armed with stopwatches, Newton spring scales, protractors and other tools, the students took measurements while on the amusement park rides and used them to solve problems in a special workbook. For example, they were asked to calculate such figures as the acceleration preceding the 360-degree vertical loop on the Revolution roller coaster and the velocity of the water in the river of the Roaring Rapids raft ride.

Workbook Graded

For Canter and her classmates, the workbook will be graded and counted as an additional midterm exam. But for most participants the day was a less serious opportunity to improve their comprehension of the laws of physics by riding the roller-coasters, high speed Ferris wheel, giant swing and Freefall.


Alexis Van Gelder, a 15-year-old sophomore at the Thacher School in Ojai, said the rides and workbook helped him to visualize physics concepts. “Before we just read them in books; now you can actually experience them.”

Magic Mountain’s Physics Day was initiated by John McGehee, a physics teacher from Rolling Hills High School who began taking students there nearly 12 years ago.

“Its good fun--a way to ingrain physical principles in their head and make it make some sense,” he said. “When we go on rides, all of a sudden they say, ‘Now I know what you were talking about.’ ”

Rides Explained

Just as the rides illuminated concepts of physics, many students found that concepts of physics helped explain some of the rides.

“On the Spinout, you know that centripetal force will hold you in. You know that the laws of physics operate in these circumstances and it is reassuring,” said Loyang Chang of El Camino Real High School. “Before I didn’t know what kept you in. I thought it was the tracks or something.”

Some students admitted, however, that their minds were not always on physics.

“If you have never been on the ride before, you are scared and wondering what’s going to happen, and before you know it, the ride it over,” said Daniel Moreno, 17, of Coachella Valley High School.