Why do curlers sweep? | Office for Science and Society – McGill University

    Almost any topic becomes more interesting with a deeper dive. that is certainly the case with curling, a sport that is a mystery to many and sadly often the butt of jokes. however, it is a sport that has a rich history, featuring strategy, athleticism, good sportsmanship, and a lot of science.

    The basic principle behind sweeping is deceptively simple. the heat produced by the friction generated by the sweep melts the ice and produces a thin layer of water on which the heavy granite stone slides more easily since the friction between the stone and the water is less than between the stone and the ice. this means that the sweep in front of the stone prevents it from slowing down and makes it go further. but it also does something else. sweeping can change the path the stone takes, i.e. the degree to which it “rolls”.

    Reading: Why do they sweep in curling

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    This is where the science gets complicated. why does the stone curl at all? that’s because it comes loose with a slight clockwise or counterclockwise twist. this means that the front of the stone rotates in one direction while the back rotates in the opposite direction. however, the stone is tilted slightly forward, so more ice melts at the front due to downward pressure than at the rear. a stone that spins clockwise therefore spins to the right because it follows the path of least resistance. the more efficient the sweep, the more the overall friction between the ice and the stone is reduced and the less the stone will curve.

    there’s more. The undulating ice cap is not smooth, but has “pebbles” in it, the result of being sprayed with a fine mist of water that leaves little bumps when it freezes. this allows the stones to slide more easily because the stone contact is only with the top of the bumps, reducing friction. rollers have to measure the pebble from a particular ice cap to assess the effect it may have on the stone’s speed and sweep.

    Then there is the matter of the broom! and therein lies an astonishing, and perhaps surprising, amount of research. The earliest descriptions of curling date back to the 16th century in Scotland, and ordinary household brooms made from corn husks were used. Today’s brooms are light years away from the ones you can buy at walmart for sweeping your kitchen floor. the handles can be made of carbon fiber or fiberglass, they are available with different flexibilities and can be equipped with rigid or cardan heads to which a brush of various materials is attached.

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    There are horsehair or pighair brushes, but the most popular ones are made from various blends of synthetic materials such as nylon, polyester, or polyurethane. competitions typically stipulate the use of standardized brushes, a result of “brushgate,” a controversy that erupted in 2015 when some brushes were seen as offering a competitive advantage. Of course, the effectiveness of sweeping depends not only on the brush but also on the sweeper. this is where athletics comes into play. fast sweeping is challenging and requires the sweeper not only to be in good condition, but also to be able to maneuver effectively on the ice. shoes are important! lots of science here too. one shoe slips and the other catches on the ice. The sliding sole can be made of Teflon or PVC, and the grip sole can be a kind of rubber.

    As for strategy in curling, it’s too complicated to describe. you really have to start watching the sport to appreciate it. but looking doesn’t give you an idea how difficult it is to curl. I got a little idea because I was once invited to try it out at the historic Royal Montreal Curling Club, the oldest curling club in North America, founded in 1807. Trust me, it’s much, much harder than it looks! curling is a very gentlemanly or feminine sport. no matter who wins, once the game is over, tradition dictates that you socialize with your opponent and that even extends to the olympics. at least it did until covid-19 swept away that tradition.


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