The Thrills of Physics

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008

Let's be honest here: How much is an amped-up teenager really going to learn about physics by riding a roller coaster called the Mind Eraser?

Not a whole lot. But Isaac Newton would have been sooo jealous.

More than 4,000 students from across the region poured through the main gates of Six Flags America in Largo for Physics Day yesterday, passing onto the park's faux-Colonial "Main Street 1776" the day before the park officially opens for the season. Janet Jackson and the pop song "Live and Let Die" -- apparently the preferred music of the Founding Fathers -- blared in the background, and the students vibrated like atomic particles. Some wore their physics team T-shirts and brought in accelerometers and stopwatches; others were just along for the rides.

Barnabas Adekanye, Irving Delco, Frailen Ramirez, Ludwin Romero and Johnny Wilks, all sophomores at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville who study engineering, were somewhere in the middle. They had brought a 28-page workbook of problems to solve. It was complicated stuff with a lot of formulas.

"Compare the change in potential energy to the gain in kinetic energy," went one question about the Mind Eraser. "Within experimental error, was energy conserved? Explain your answer."

Johnny, 15, had an easier explanation for what they were learning: "Like how the gravity and force relates with the loops and stuff."

So they trotted off to the Mind Eraser and strapped themselves in. The seats allowed their legs to dangle. While students sitting behind them charged one another up, these students had that far-off look, as if they were weighing the potential risks of going at a top speed of 60 mph through loops and corkscrews and a 91-foot drop.

For Barnabas, 16, it was his first time on a roller coaster. He came to the United States from Nigeria three years ago.

"The best advice I can give is, don't hold back screaming," said Irving, 15.

Before the ride, Irving said: "I'm not scared, but I'm going to cry like a little girl."

Afterward, he said, "Actually, I cried like a dude."

"I don't know. It makes you want to throw up," said Barnabas, who had heeded Irving's advice to the letter. In a photo taken of the ride, he bore an expression of absolute terror.

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