Thrilling science

An exhibit at London's Dana Centre uses fairground rides to explore the biology of excitement

Oct 27, 2006
Stephen Pincock
Fear, horror and perhaps a little nausea are making science headlines in London this month, with visitors to the Dana Centre at the city's Science Museum being offered a chance to jump aboard some fairground rides and explore the biology of thrills.The randomly selected participants, who must be over the age of 18, are equipped with monitoring equipment designed by the UK firm Health-Smart. Contained within a high-tech vest is a miniature electro-encephalograph (EEG) measuring about one square inch, and an accelerometer for gauging the movement of the ride. A helmet-mounted video camera records the participants' facial reactions.The images and data are then beamed wirelessly onto a giant screen behind the ride to be viewed by the rest of the museum visitors and analysed by experts of many stripes, including the UK's only space flight surgeon, psychologists, and Dan Howland, editor of the eccentric online publication The Journal of Ride Theory.Fairground rides are an ideal place to explore the physiology of the human body during a thrilling experience, said exhibition curator Brendan Walker--partly because of their familiarity. "Everyone understands fairground rides as a cultural phenomenon, people immediately understand what's going on," he said.For the past 500 years, Walker says, fairgrounds have offered the kind of adrenalin rush that might previously have been triggered by more serious events such as fear of starvation or attack by wild animals. "They're like an experimental laboratory, a place to explore those extreme emotions in a safe environment."The first of the rides was set up on the grounds of the museum in mid-October, a "cake-mixer" machine called the Miami Thrill that rotates its passengers through forces up to 2.5G, reportedly enough to briefly induce weightlessness--and mild queasiness.A reporter from the UK's The Independent newspaper was on hand to experience the event last week. Cahal Milmo's story reveals that the average heart rate of participants was 130 beats per minute during the ride, compared with 90bpm when at rest."But the most interesting thing we found was that most of the change in heart rate happened when the person was sitting and waiting for the ride to begin," said Tuvi Orbach, CEO of Health-Smart. "This is interesting information both for the participants and for people designing rides," Orbach added. "The main 'thrill' is the psychological and emotional one, and not the physical one." This week, the museum featured a Ghost Train ride the museum says captured "film noir-style" suspense, and more than a hint of Victorian-era ghost shows. This offers a chance to explore some of the darker side of fairground thrills, says Walker. The experiment will also involve the Booster, a ride based on jet pilot training apparatus which subjects participants to 4G, equivalent to a Formula One racing car going around a corner at top speed.Stephen Pincock spincock@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:Dana Centre, "Fairground--Thrill Laboratory" of Ride Theory Milmo,"Museum offers fear and nausea in the name of science," Independent, October 18, 2006.