Discover the science behind the Calgary Stampede

The ins and outs of the rides, games, bucking broncs and strange food of the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth

Can the Greatest Outdoor Show on earth be a learning opportunity? Of course, it can. In the spirit of summer fun, we enlisted the help of Mount Royal University professors to explain how the Stampede really works.

Roller-coasters - Artificial gravity

Crazy Mouse

Check out the Crazy Mouse roller-coaster on the Calgary Stampede midway.

Photo courtesy Calgary Stampede

"Roller-coasters are interesting from a physics point of view because it gets into artificial gravity," says Raphael Slawinski, PhD and associate professor of physics at Mount Royal. "We're familiar with the fact that as an elevator starts and speeds up on the way up, you feel heavier, and then as the elevator slows down at the top, you feel lighter. And basically it's the same idea with the roller-coaster."

Many of us think of acceleration as speeding up. In physics, however, acceleration is defined as any change in speed or direction of motion. When you are at the top of a roller-coaster and begin your descent, you have acceleration that's pointing down toward the centre of a circle.

"You can imagine that if you go over the hump of a roller coaster fast enough, you'll leave your seat, essentially become weightless. But even if you don't leave your seat, you are continuing in one direction while the roller-coaster starts on its way down. So, for that moment, you approach weightlessness, you approach freefall."

At the bottom of a roller-coaster the opposite occurs. Through inertia ― the physical effect that keeps something in the same position or moving in the same direction ― your body wants to keep going down, but the roller-coaster is already going up, pushing up on you, and you experience an upward acceleration that may be quite a bit greater than the acceleration of gravity.

"The roller-coaster ties in to notions of weightlessness and artificial gravity and could be compared to the feeling of weightlessness experienced by astronauts or the idea that people are familiar with from sci-fi movies with space stations that spin. The space station is spinning in order to create artificial gravity so that as you are walking on the inside of the rotating space station you feel as if you are experiencing gravity."

Midway tossing games - Keep it low

Stampede toss

The Stampede grounds features various midway games.

Photo courtesy Calgary Stampede

They look easy, but ask any kid who's parted with a week or two of allowance trying to win a stuffed toy and they'll tell you differently. Carnival games are tough, and the ball toss games are among the toughest.

One common game asks players to knock over a pyramid of three milk bottles with a softball.

"The bottles have a very broad base, and they are fairly heavy at the bottom, so knocking them over is hard for that reason," explains Slawinski.

"My main advice is to go low, below the midpoint. If you think of this pyramid as kind of a breakable object, if you hit the top of it, what you might end up doing is breaking off the top, which is knocking off the top bottle, as opposed to hitting at the bottom, where ideally you might undermine the whole structure."

Throwing the ball faster delivers a greater "impulse," related to the amount of force with which the ball hits the bottles, and "other things being equal, will be more likely to knock it over," Slawinski says. "However, other things aren't equal and your aim is probably a lot worse if you are throwing it faster. So there may be a tradeoff that if you can be more accurate with your aim then throwing a slower ball might be better."

Gambler's fallacy

Miidway games

Gambling is a popular activity on the Calgary Stampede midway.

Photo courtesy Calgary Stampede

One of the great hopes of a gambler in the Stampede casino or midway is that if they have had a string of bad luck, in a game involving dice, for example, they are "due" for a win. Sadly, it's simply not true.

"Let's say you're hoping to roll a six, and you keep rolling and you're not rolling a six, then you might feel you're due for a six. But each roll is independent of the previous one, that's why it's a fallacy. There isn't some law that says that the law of averages is actually going to affect the odds and make six more likely after a long run of no sixes. On any given roll, there is just one six, regardless of the previous rolls," Slawinski says.

Card games aren't subject to this in that there is just one of any card. If you are hoping for aces and have drawn a string of cards that are not aces, then your chances are improving.

"But if you have independent trials as many games of chance like roulette are, then yes, it is gambler's fallacy to think you are 'due 'for a win."

Bucking stock


A bareback rider holds on tight to his bronco.

Photo courtesy Chris Bolin / Calgary Stampede

Think of a dog coming out of the water and shaking itself off.

A bucking animal is trying to shake a rider off, so "to some extent that's no different than a dog after a swim getting out of the water and shaking itself. When the dog is shaking itself, it's accelerating back and forth and that comes back to one of the basic physical laws. Newton's second law says that to accelerate something, you need to exert a force. And if the force holding a drop of water on a hair isn't strong enough, the drop will slide off."

A possible tactic for the competing cowboy is to try to anticipate the bronc's motion and accelerate himself in the same direction.

Midway food

Mini doughnuts

Mini donuts are a must at the Calgary Stampede.

Photo courtesy Shaun Robinson / Calgary Stampede

The Stampede loves to tempt ― almost dare ― us with new and novel food each year on the midway.

Deep-fried banana peppers or cricket grilled-cheese sandwiches, anyone? But what accounts for the attraction of these interesting, and sometimes bizarre, flavour mixes? For more on the science of taste, or gustation, we turned to Mount Royal biology professor Katja Hoehn, MD, PhD.

Gustation, she explains, detects chemicals dissolved in saliva. These chemicals elicit one of five taste modalities: salty (sodium), sour (acid), sweet (mono- and disaccharides), bitter (lots of things), and umami (the amino acids glutamate and aspartate).

Each of these modalities has its own taste cell within a taste bud on the tongue. Three underlying mechanisms convert the presence of a chemical into a taste signal that in the brain becomes a conscious sensation.

Gustation serves two purposes. First, says Hoehn, it guides us to eat things that are good for us (salty, mildly sour, sweet and umami). Second, it prevents us from ingesting things that are bad for us (bitter, very sour). Our responses to these sensations are largely present at birth, but experience can override these responses. For example, we learn to like certain bitter (coffee, tea, beer) or sour (pickles) foods.

"It's important to remember, however, that when we eat something many more sensations come into play," says Hoehn. "A large part of 'taste' is actually smell (olfaction), which detects volatile chemicals that are released from food, sometimes by chewing. Think of the smell of strawberries, roasted meat or cheese. The spicy heat of some foods (peppers) is actually the sense of pain (nociception). Finally, mechanoreceptors in the mouth provide our sense of 'smooth or crunchy,' the feel of food in our mouths as we eat."

So are we likely to enjoy these new food offerings on the midway?

"Whether a new food experience is perceived as good or bad is often a matter of personality (are you an adventurous eater?), or preparation (is it like something you've had before?). However, sufficient hunger will eventually override any squeamishness. We're more likely to eat something new and different if we're hungry. Widespread acceptance of a new food is often driven by social concerns. Is it trendy? Do your friends like it? Is it something that people you know grew up eating even if you didn't?"

Have fun at the Calgary Stampede, everyone!

July 5, 2019 ― Peter Glenn

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