Physics and Fear

I rode on a roller-coaster for the first time last weekend. It may come as a surprise to some of you that I’ve never done this before; surely any child to grow up in North America within the last fifty years must have been on at least one roller-coaster prior to the age of ten! But it was never an ambition of mine as a child, for the very simple reason that I was (and am) a coward*. This time was different though; this time, I figured that, being as I am in Europe, I’m already about eight thousand kilometres east of my comfort zone anyways, so I may as well take advantage of the opportunity to expand my horizons.

Thus it was that I accepted immediately when a group of us were offered a chance to visit Europa Park, the largest amusement park in Germany. And no sooner had I gotten there and witnessed the swirling array of its rides and attractions, then I began to wonder what the hell had possessed me to agree to all this.

Now, don’t get me wrong here; I believe in Newtonian physics, and I trust engineers, safety inspectors and insurance companies to do their jobs. Intellectually, I realize that I am far more likely to perish while riding my bicycle to work than I am to die on a roller-coaster.

And yet…

And yet, as I made that first, screaming, 4g descent down the Silver Star, I can guarantee that I was not thinking about physics or actuarial mathematics. Rather, the only thought going through my head at that moment was: “So this is how I’m going to die: a bloody pancake crushed beneath a heap of twisted metal.”   And I wish I could tell you that that feeling abated with subsequent rides, but no; it really, really didn’t.

The point that I’m trying to make, in a round-about sort of way, is this: there is a persistent belief out there which holds that somehow, rational understanding and emotional resonance are mutually contradictory, and that, knowledge can conquer fear.  I now know this, based on personal experience, to be false.


*Indeed, I consider the fact that any child I am ever likely to have will probably one day want me to escort them onto a roller-coaster to be a relatively strong argument against having kids.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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One Response to Physics and Fear

  1. Lindsay says:

    I’ve never ridden one, either.

    For me, it’s not that I’m afraid — I also trust engineers to know their business, and amusement-park owners to have a keen eye for liability — so much as that I know my body’s limitations. Have known them since I was little: I can’t ride anything that goes too fast or makes sharp turns, or I *will* barf, and will probably not have any fun at all.

    Couldn’t ride the spinning tea cups, either.

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