Why does a roller coaster end on a lower level than where it starts? — L, Staten Island, New York
A roller coaster is a gravity-powered train. Since it has no engine or other means of propulsion, it relies on energy stored in the force of gravity to make it move. This energy, known as “gravitational potential energy,” exists because separating the roller coaster from the earth requires work—they have to be pulled apart to separate them. Since energy is a conserved quantity, meaning that it can’t be created or destroyed, energy invested in the roller coaster by pulling it away from the earth doesn’t disappear. It becomes stored energy: gravitational potential energy. The higher the roller coaster is above the earth’s surface, the more gravitational potential energy it has.
Since the top of the first hill is the highest point on the track, it’s also the point at which the roller coaster’s gravitational potential energy is greatest. Moreover, as the roller coaster passes over the top of the first hill, its total energy is greatest. Most of that total energy is gravitational potential energy but a small amount is kinetic energy, the energy of motion.
From that point on, the roller coaster does two things with its energy. First, it begins to transform that energy from one form to another—from gravitational potential energy to kinetic energy and from kinetic energy to gravitational potential energy, back and forth. Second, it begins to transfer some of its energy to its environment, mostly in the form of heat and sound. Each time the roller coaster goes downhill, its gravitational potential energy decreases and its kinetic energy increases. Each time the roller coaster goes uphill, its kinetic energy decreases and its gravitational potential energy increases. But each transfer of energy isn’t complete because some of the energy is lost to heat and sound. Because of this lost energy, the roller coaster can’t return to its original height after coasting down hill. That’s why each successive hill must be lower than the previous hill. Eventually the roller coaster has lost so much of its original total energy that the ride must end. With so little total energy left, the roller coaster can’t have much gravitational potential energy and must be much lower than the top of the first hill.
It’s then time for the riders to get off, new riders to board, and for a motor-driven chain to drag the roller coaster back to the top of the hill to start the process again. The chain does work on the roller coaster, investing energy into it so that it can carry its riders along the track at break-neck speed again. Overall, energy enters the roller coaster by way of the chain and leaves the roller coaster as heat and sound. In the interim, it goes back and forth between gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy as the roller coaster goes up and down the hills.