Spinning around

Only the most persuasive of public speakers can get children to sit through a talk about gravity, when outside Alton Towers awaits. Douglas Blane reports

What could possibly frighten someone who spends his time dreaming up new ways of defying gravity and designing ever more terrifying white-knuckle rides?

For John Wardley - "the world's most famous rollercoaster designer" - that's easy: "When they told me I had to give a talk to hundreds of school kids about Newton's laws of motion, that was really scary.

"The last thing coach-loads of kids on an educational visit to Alton Towers want to do is think about Newton, so it's like being fed to the lions. You've got an audience that just wants to get out and have fun. When I was told to finish with a question and answer session, for example, I thought 'Oh no - if any little kid puts his hand up we're both going to get killed'."

But Wardley's career has been built on a remarkable ability to imagine situations that make the blood run cold, then working out how to survive them. His talks now end by telling anyone with a question to stay behind, "and almost before I've finished the sentence the theatre is empty".

Having resolved how to get off the stage in one piece, he only had to figure out how to hold the audience's attention for the rest of the lecture. "The trick is to let them know that if I was in their shoes I wouldn't want to be there either, but if they listen they're going to experience Alton Towers in a completely new way."

With the help of a skateboard, a set of ramps, and a volunteer from the audience, Wardley demonstrates how potential energy changes to kinetic energy and back again as the skateboarder hurtles down one slope and up another, just like the rollercoaster with its squealing occupants.

"At first the guy is clumsy and falls over a few times, but by the end he's doing the most amazing things, because he's actually the British skateboard champion, whom we've planted in the audience."

The next topic is centripetal force which, for some rides, is all that stops participants soaring through the air in a beautiful parabola. "We whirl an object round and let it fly into the audience, then ask the kids to work out what happened. Then we explain that they can go out and experience the same thing. But when they are whizzing around, instead of just screaming their heads off, they can think about the fact that dear old Isaac Newton got it right. And if he hadn't they wouldn't be stuck to their seats upside-down on the Enterprise Ride."

A TICKET TO RIDE

On October 16 and 17, Alton Towers will host "Defying Gravity", for key stages 3 and 4. Besides entrance to John Wardley's presentations, the cost of pound;15.50 per pupil also covers all-day access to every ride. One teacher is admitted free of charge for every 10 pupils, and additional adults will be admitted for pound;11 each. Every pupil receives a workbook of ride-related exercises and teachers get a booklet connecting the various parts of the event to the national curriculum. To book a school trip, Tel: 01538 70 22 00

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