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Loop the Loop: The Tech Museum takes visitors for a ride at its latest exhibit.

Curves Ahead

A new exhibit about roller coasters at the Tech is best experienced on an empty stomach


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Qu'est-ce qui se passe quand on vomit? That roughly translates as "What happens when you vomit?" Well, one can find out at the Tech Museum's new exhibit, Scream Machines: The Science of Roller Coasters. Since the traveling exhibition was designed and created by the Ontario Science Center in Canada, all placards are displayed in both English and French.

Scream Machines explores the physics and psychology of roller coasters through several interactive hands-on exhibits. At one part, a cross-section of a human allows visitors to push a red button and make the person vomit. Regurgitating, it explains, is a coordinated dance between your brain and your gut. Your medulla is the part of the brain that contains the vomit-control center, it says.

Some of the exhibits might upset a few stomachs—that is, for those prone to motion sickness. A glaring sign warns, "This exhibit may make you sick." For example, in the G-Force exhibit, visitors can climb on a modified bicycle mounted on the end of a pivotal arm to ride up and around the inside of an 18-foot metal circle.

A barf alert warns folks upon entering the Tumble-vision, where they can tiptoe across a stationary bridge that doesn't seem so immobile at first, since it is situated in a rotating tunnel, not unlike the ones used to train astronauts. Stop Motion puts visitors into a thumping room with strobe lights and mirrors to explain how ride simulators make people sick. The disco attributes make it feel like the young men's department at Macy's.

Other exhibits are even more educational. One shows the physics of why your ears plug up while on a roller coaster. Yet another shows that the origins of such machines lie with sleds running down man-made ice-covered hills constructed of lumber and tree trunks. A glossy photo on one wall depicts sled racing outside Château Frontenac in Quebec City—an activity dating back to the 1880s.

A miniature replica of a roller coaster named the Black Plague sits on the other side of the room. Visitors can press a button and make it work. Kids can even build their own roller coasters with wooden parts or explore the physics of roller-coaster loops. The Roller Coaster Parts Department also shows off some intricate machinery for people to check out.

But the show isn't just for kids. In the test-drive room, visitors can sit inside a roller-coaster car and watch a video screen showing a human's-eye view of what it's like going through a ride. It's like those driver's-ed movies in high school, except on a roller coaster. Kids scream, and parents watch.

What's more, the show gives one an insight into the psychology and physiology of adrenaline rushes and thrill-seeking. The press kit even comes with a barf bag, which says, "This might come in handy." But only those who really have serious problems with motion sickness will be affected. Jaded types who've spent their lives seeking thrills will have no problem riding a bicycle upside down in a huge circle or crossing a bridge in a rotating tunnel. As with any roller-coaster ride, you want to make other people heave their guts and prove that you, yourself, won't. In that sense, the exhibit is perfect for a first date.

Some trivia accompanies the show as well. Who knew that there are 1,916 roller coasters in the world or that 8,000 members comprise the American Coaster Enthusiasts, the world's largest club of amusement-ride enthusiasts?

It all comes down to vomit in the end, and everyone knows kids just love to talk about barf. That's a good thing. We definitely need more French barf references in a Silicon Valley technological museum of innovation. All hail the Great White North for coming up with this one. And nowhere else in San Jose will you see roller derby translated as comme sur des roulettes.

Scream Machines: The Science of Roller Coasters runs through Jan. 3, 2005, at the Tech Museum of Innovation, 201 S. Market St., San Jose. (408.294.TECH)

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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