Olympic physics- the science of curling

A Moment of Science

Not just shuffleboard on ice. More than just sweeping. Curling is an Olympic phenomenon that takes a surprising amount of skill, strategy, balance, and, you guessed it, science! 

A look at some of the forces at work with a curling stone in motion.

Take its namesake, that curled trajectory on the ice-  it’s a physics enigma- stumping scientists as it doesn’t behave as you’d expect! There’s been numerous articles, experiments, each offering their own hypothesis- none widely accepted as the concrete answer. We’ll explore this confounding conundrum in another Moment of Science, but for now let’s get ready for some curling! 

First things first, preparing the ice. 

Mike Simpson, president of the Charleston Curling Club, explains the process. “First we level the ice the best we can, but most importantly we pebble.”

In which heated water is sprinkled on the ice to create a “pebbled” texture.

“This texture allows the stone to move and go. If it was a flat sheet of ice you couldn’t control it- it would go anywhere.” 

This pebbling creates just enough friction to control the nearly 45 pound chunk of granite as it travels 150 feet towards its target. It may not look like it, but only a small portion of the stone actually is in contact with the ice. Its bottom is concave, not flat, allowing for a nearly effortless glide- helped along by frenzied sweeping. 

“Sweeping changes your stone a lot,” says Simpson. “It does not make the stone go faster. It does not make the stone go slower. What it does will extend the travel of a stone.”

“A good sweeper could extend the stone an additional 10 feet from where it would have stopped.” 

Using their full body weight, the sweepers slightly heat the ice ahead of the stone- reducing the already minimal friction between the stone and the ice before it refreezes. In addition to making the stone travel further, sweeping can alter its trajectory by creating a shallow channel for the stone to travel in. Experienced sweepers can adjust the stone’s path, making it straighter or enhancing that curl.

This is just some of the science behind this notably complex and difficult sport! Trust me, it’s a lot harder than the Olympians make it look! If you want to try your hand at curling, the Charleston Curling Club’s next introductory class is August 15th. Head over to the Charleston Curling Club’s website for more information.

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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