IMAX documentary explores antics of adrenaline junkies

Why would you put yourself at risk? For the sheer fun of it, of course!

Risk is an unavoidable part of life. We work very hard to make our lives as safe as possible: locks, safety belts, helmets, traffic signals, life jackets, security guards... What makes us go on with our daily lives is our confidence that everything will go right and that we can manage the risks we take.

"RISK!," a new traveling exhibit accompanied by "Adrenaline Rush," a new IMAX film, has just opened at the Pacific Science Center.

The 5,000-square-foot exhibit, developed by the Fort Worth Museum of Science and Industry, showcases a variety of interactive, realistic experiences that invite you to explore risk, understand it better and recognize the part it plays in everyday life.

"Life is all about taking risks, and the decisions we make about risk affect the quality and nature of our lives," said Charlie Walter, the senior vice president of the Texas museum and project manager for the exhibit. "Our hope is that 'RISK!' will help visitors better understand and deal with risk using science, mathematics and critical thinking skills."

"Adrenaline Rush," the IMAX film that accompanies the exhibit, takes a look at the world of skydiving and base jumping. ("Base" is an acronym for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth, all starting points for sky dives lacking an airplane.) It explores how the risk taking involved in such extreme activities can tell us about the world of science and innovation, and - yes - about the way we deal with risk in our daily lives.

While providing breathtaking views of skydiving over the Florida Keys, the Mojave Desert and the magnificent fjords of Norway, "Adrenaline Rush" explores the psychological and physiological forces behind risk taking.

Why, as most people run from danger, do some run to it? Are those people just deranged, or what?

Some scientists studying this phenomenon believe they may have found the answer in the complex chemistry of the human brain. Inside the brain are billions of special molecules called neurotransmitters. It is by controlling the flow of these molecules that we formulate thoughts, make decisions and experience various sensations and feelings.

One particular neurotransmitter called serotonin is linked with feelings of well-being and anxiety.

Serotonin levels are regulated by another molecule, monomine oxidase (MAO), and extreme risk-takers tend to have a third less MAO than the average person. It is interesting to note that while low MAO levels are found in athletes, performers, entrepreneurs and artists, they are also common among those prone to antisocial behavior like crime and drug or alcohol addiction - less recommendable kinds of risk taking.

MAO is just one of many factors that shape a human being. Personality, family and social context can also intervene, as well as factors like the male hormone testosterone or a gene called D4DR, which can cause variations in the levels of another neurotransmitter called dopamine.

So what does this all mean? Brain chemicals alone cannot explain why most people choose the safe route and why some prefer taking chances and risks. Personality, upbringing and education, even the encouragement of peers can lead us one way or the other.

Very few people will ever go skydiving. Even fewer will try base jumping.

Before a thrill seeker, like those seen in "Adrenaline Rush," will decide to jump off a 4,100-foot cliff, they spend a long time building up the knowledge that can make the experience as safe as possible. They learn a number of safety measures, technical skills and procedures, until every move becomes second nature. It is through this intense training that they reduce the risk, and therefore increase the odds of their success.

One of the highlights of the movie is the construction of a parachute per Leonardo da Vinci's plans, and then "jumping it."

The first parachute was imagined in 1485 by da Vinci. As aerodynamics developed centuries later, people often gave da Vinci credit for his design achievement, but no one had ever constructed a full-size model from his plans.

With the help of Oxford University history professor Martin Kemp, Leonardo's instructions for size and materials were deciphered.

Adrian Nicholas has done approximately 6,500 skydives. There was no way that da Vinci's parachute, with its great wooden frame, could be tested from an airplane, so the 'chute was taken to altitude by hanging from beneath a hot-air balloon. Nicholas then hung from beneath the test parachute.

"The consensus opinion was that I was going to be in for a wild ride," said Nicholas.

The jump was a success.

Because they took this risk, we know more about flying parachutes than we did before. And we know that Leonardo was right 500 years ago, even though the laws governing aerodynamics and flight had not yet been precisely defined.

Since I'm your basic adrenaline junkie, I found the film and exhibit an interesting way to spend some time. The base-jumping scenes and the skydiving sequences are spectacular. If you're at the Pacific Science Center, you might want to give the film a viewing.

The "RISK!" exhibit and the IMAX film "Adrenaline Rush: The Science of Risk" will run through Sept. 18.

Gary McDaniel is a freelance writer living in Magnolia.[[In-content Ad]]