Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

What Exactly Is Curling?

Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Olympic curling has taken to the ice, but if you're like most Americans, this writer included, the game is a bit baffling. Here's a quick, stripped-down primer on everyone's favorite icy alternative to shuffleboard. It doesn't cover anywhere near all of the game's nuances, but it should give you enough info that you can enjoy watching an end or two. (And yes, you'll learn what an "end" is.)


Good question. First, let's get a bit of the jargon down. The playing surface in curling is called "the sheet." Sheet dimensions can vary, but they're usually around 150 feet long by about 15 feet wide. The sheet is covered with tiny droplets of water that become ice and cause the stones to "curl," or deviate from a straight path. These water droplets are known as "pebble."

At each end there's a target that looks like a big bullseye. These targets are known as "the houses." The center of the house is known as the "button." Basically, the object of the game is to get your stones closer to the button than the other team gets theirs.


How Curling Works
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Remember how we talked about the pebble of ice droplets that the rock has to travel across? When the stone touches the pebble, there's friction, which can slow down the stone and makes it curl away from its straight path to the house.

Obviously, that friction is not always a good thing, but sweeping helps combat the problem. The sweeping motion raises the temperature of the ice by a degree or two, which diminishes the friction between the pebble and the stone and keeps the stone moving in a straight line.


Each curling team has four members: a lead, a second, a vice-skip (or third), and a skip. Each "end" (curling's equivalent of a baseball inning) involves both teams shooting (or "delivering") eight stones at the house, with players delivering two stones apiece.

When the lead, second, and vice are delivering their stones, the skip stands at the opposite end of the sheet (near the house) and uses his broom to give his teammates a target for their deliveries. Once the stone has been delivered and is a "running stone" (that is, one that's still sliding), the skip then yells to the sweepers to let them know when to sweep and how hard. When the skip shoots the last two stones of a team's end, the vice takes over calling the shots.


In each end, both teams send eight stones down the sheet. Once all 16 stones have been delivered, the team with the stone that's closest to the button (center of the house) effectively "wins" the end. Only this team will earn any points for the end. It gets a point for each of its stones that are in the house and closer to the button than the other team's closest stone. Since the team that won the end always has at least one stone that's closer to the button than their opponent, the team always scores at least one point, and could score up to eight points.

If neither team manages to keep a stone in the house during an end, it's known as a "blank end," and no points are scored. Olympic curling matches last for 10 ends unless there is a tie, in which case it goes to extra-ends, curling's equivalent of overtime.


As you might have guessed from reading about the scoring system, throwing the last stone of an end is a huge advantage. If you've got the last stone, you can always try to knock the other team's best stone away from the button. If a team holds the last stone for an end, it "has the hammer," and should probably be able to score some points. If the team without the hammer manages to somehow stymie their opponent and score points, it's called a "stolen end." Whichever team fails to score points in an end gets the hammer for the next end.


Yes, there's all sorts of strategy in curling. Let's say your team doesn't have the hammer. You're at a huge disadvantage when it comes to scoring points, so you might opt to play defensively. To do that, you might just deliver a number of "guards," or rocks that will sit in front of the house and provide an obstacle for the other team's stones. Alternatively, guards can be used to defend your stones that are already in the house from being knocked out by the other team's "takeout" shots.

The third major type of curling shot is the "draw," a shot that's meant to avoid other stones and come to rest in the house. Generally, a draw is used with the hope of scoring points, a guard is thrown to protect the house or a stone that's already been thrown, and a takeout is used defensively.


Yes you may.

This post was originally published in 2010.

Big Questions
Why Do Onions Make You Cry?

The onion has been traced back as far as the Bronze Age and was worshipped by the Ancient Egyptians (and eaten by the Israelites during their bondage in Egypt). Onions were rubbed over the muscles of Roman gladiators, used to pay rent in the Middle Ages, and eventually brought to the Americas, where today we fry, caramelize, pickle, grill, and generally enjoy them.

Many of us burst into tears when we cut into one, too. It's the price we pay for onion-y goodness. Here's a play-by-play breakdown of how we go from grabbing a knife to crying like a baby:

1. When you cut into an onion, its ruptured cells release all sorts of goodies, like allinase enzymes and amino acid sulfoxides. The former breaks the latter down into sulfenic acids.

2. The sulfenic acids, unstable bunch that they are, spontaneously rearrange into thiosulfinates, which produce a pungent odor and at one time got the blame for our tears. The acids are also converted by the LF-synthase enzyme into a gas called syn-propanethial-S-oxide, also known as the lachrymatory factor (or the crying factor).

3. Syn-propanethial-S-oxide moves through the air and reaches our eyes. The first part of the eye it meets, the cornea, is populated by autonomic motor fibers that lead to the lachrymal glands. When syn-propanethial-S-oxide is detected, all the fibers in the cornea start firing and tell the lachrymal glands to wash the irritant away.

4. Our eyes automatically start blinking and producing tears, which flushes the irritant away. Of course, our reaction to burning eyes is often to rub them, which only makes things worse since our hands also have some syn-propanethial-S-oxide on them.

It only takes about 30 seconds to start crying after you make the first cut; that's the time needed for syn-propanethial-S-oxide formation to peak.


The onion's relatives, like green onions, shallots, leeks and garlic, also produce sulfenic acids when cut, but they generally have fewer (or no) LF-synthase enzymes and don't produce syn-propanethial-S-oxide.


Since I usually go through a good deal of onions while cooking at home, I've been road testing some of the different methods the internet suggests for reducing or avoiding the effects of the lachrymatory factor. Here's what I tried:

Method #1: Chill or slightly freeze the onions before cutting, the idea being that this will change the chemical reactions and reduce the gas that is released.
Result: The onion from the fridge has me crying just as quickly as room temperature ones. The one that was in a freezer for 30 minutes leaves me dry-eyed for a bit, but by the time I'm done dicing my eyes start to burn a little.

Method #2: Cut fast! Get the chopping over with before the gas reaches your eyes.
Result: Just hacking away at the onion, I get in the frying pan without so much as a sting in my eyes. The onion looks awful, though. Doing a proper dice, I take a little too long and start tearing up. If you don't mind a mangled onion, this is the way to go.

Method #3: Put a slice of bread in your mouth, and cut the onion with most of the bread sticking out to "catch" the fumes.
Result: It seems the loaf of bread I have has gone stale. I stop the experiment and put bread on my shopping list.

Method #4: Chew gum while chopping. It keeps you breathing through your mouth, which keeps the fumes away from your eyes.
Result: This seems to work pretty well as long as you hold your head in the right position. Leaning toward the cutting board or looking right down at the onion puts your eyes right in the line of fire again.

Method #5: Cut the onions under running water. This prevents the gas from traveling up into the eyes.
Result: An onion in the sink is a hard onion to cut. I think Confucius said that. My leaky Brita filter is spraying me in the face and I'm terrified I'm going to cut myself, but I'm certainly not crying.

Method #6: Wear goggles.
Result: In an effort to maintain my dignity, I try my eyeglasses and sunglasses first. Neither do me any good. The ol' chemistry lab safety glasses make me look silly, but help a little more. I imagine swim goggles would really do the trick, but I don't have any.

Method #7: Change your onion. "Tear free" onions have been developed in the UK via special breeding and in New Zealand via "gene silencing" techniques.
Result: My nearest grocery store, Whole Foods, doesn't sell genetically modified produce or onions from England. Tonight, we eat leeks!

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Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.