Roller Coaster Thought Experiment

You know those thoughts you have in the shower? No, not those thoughts…but the mind-wandering flashes of observation or brilliant insight that you can’t seem to get any other way? I was thinking last night about a trip we took last year to Knott’s Berry Farm, where Leif — then 48 1/4 inches tall — was just tall enough for the radical roller coasters. There were absolutely no lines and so Leif and I strolled through the gates and directly onto Ghostrider, where we seated ourselves in the last car of the train. With my continued assurances of a fairly mellow ride, we clicked toward the top of the first hill. And long before we crested, Leif and I were whipped over the top and down many hundreds of feet toward the cold, hard ground, pulled over by the gravity already working on the front seats. Now in hindsight and in the shower, I recognize a couple thoughts that went through my head at the time. Here they are in no particular order:

• “I’m going to die immediately and in a very bloody fashion.”

•  “If I survive, my wife will kill me. And then I will die slowly and painfully.”

•  “How can the back seat of a roller coaster ‘go faster’ than the front seats without the train expanding and contracting?”

It’s the final question gets me. Consider it a thought experiment: How can the rear seats of a roller coaster “go faster” than the front seats, with all seats ending up in the same place, in the same order? Do these back seats really go faster than the front seats? If so, how? Does it somehow take Einsteinian and not Newtonian physics to explain the behavior of a roller coaster? (Harebrained and/or convoluted answers encouraged.)


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