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Students get lesson on science behind high-wire walk

Without knowledge of science and technology, Nik Wallenda's wire-walk across Niagara Falls tonight wouldn't be possible, he told a couple dozen students Thursday.

"What if the cable breaks? I need to think of that, I need to be prepared for it whenever I walk a wire," he said. "And that's all science."

Wallenda spoke at Terrapin Point on Goat Island to students from LaSalle Preparatory School in the Falls, St. Peter's Catholic School in Lewiston and the Community Charter School and Elmwood Village Charter School in Buffalo about the importance of his education.

He allowed students to ask him questions regarding the scientific planning that went into his walk, hoping to show them how one creative idea can spawn innovation, and how many nontraditional vocations, such as tightrope walking, are driven by engineering.

Time-Warner Cable hosted the event as part of its Connect a Million Minds project to spark interest among children in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields of study.

Wallenda, who will be the first to walk across the brink of the Horseshoe Falls if he is successful tonight, said that when he walks tightropes he's often trusting his engineers with his life.

"I know how to walk a wire, I've been doing it since the age of 2," he said. "But these guys are here to make sure everything is done properly and safely, so that when I'm on that wire, I'm not thinking about, 'Well, what if it becomes detached?' "

As technology advances, Wallenda's job becomes easier, he said. Back when his ancestors walked cables, they wouldn't be able to tell how strong the wire was, apart from visually looking at it. But now, Wallenda said he can tell down to the pound and ounce how tight the wires he walks on are, how much they sag and the degree of their incline.

Wallenda described to the students the purpose of the pendulums, or "black things," that hang from the wire across the gorge. They are required to keep the wire from unraveling underneath Wallenda's feet.

The pendulums are at different heights and spaced out at different lengths. As Wallenda walks on the cable, he creates a frequency throughout it, and if the pendulums were all the same height, they would create their own frequency, moving against that of Wallenda's. He could then fall of the wire.

Wallenda's engineer and uncle, Mike Troffer, explained the science behind the cable Wallenda will walk tonight. The cable itself is a steel rope consisting of six bundles of wire that wrap around the outside of a rope. Each bundle consists of 49 individual wires.

Altogether, the wire has a strength of 396,000 pounds.

Wallenda's walk will be the first time such a long cable is unsupported by stabilizers, which Wallenda said usually are placed every 50 feet. The stabilizers are used to keep the cable from swinging underneath the walker's feet. Using such a large, heavy cable, he said, will hopefully increase the rope's tension and prevent the swinging.

Students asked questions about the science behind the walk but had other concerns as well. One regarded why the walk was being held at night, which Wallenda said was the ideal time for television viewers to watch.

The students were most eager to find out if Wallenda was scared.

"Am I scared? No I'm not scared. I respect what I do," he told them. "To be scared of it is actually debilitating, because I'd be too nervous or shaky to walk across wire. So it's important that I'm confident."

Wallenda also told students that he hoped the "buzz" of the performance would help the city's struggling economy, bringing in jobs. One billion people will watch his performance worldwide over the next 48 hours, he predicted.

Alina Montes, an eighth-grader from LaSalle, said that what shocked her about Wallenda's talk was the amount of science that has gone into tonight's walk.

"You think about the tightrope walk, but not about all the science and engineering to keep them safe," she said. "I've never thought of that."