How to Make a Sled Go Faster, According to Science

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So you have a need for speed. Sled speed. You've already picked a steep slope and streamlined your form. Maybe you're wearing a skintight Lycra luge racing suit and have shaved your head. Maybe you've shaved everything—when you're battling air resistance, you can't leave anything to chance.

Let's assume you've scratched all that off your to-do list and now want to reduce friction between your sled and the ground. In other words, you're Clark Griswolding this sucker and need some solid toboggan lube.

Can science help you go faster? Yes, it can.

The science of friction and lubrication—what's called tribology—has focused greatly on snow and ice: The research is valued by avalanche researchers, automobile and tire manufacturers, and America's $20 billion winter sports industry. The consensus? You need to exploit the properties of "melt-water lubrication."

When sledders zoom down a hill, they're not traveling atop pure snow—they're skimming across a microscopically thin layer of meltwater. This water, created by the friction of the moving sled, is your primary lubricant. According to researchers [PDF] at the ski company Swix, the ideal meltwater layer is 50 molecules thick and occurs at around 32°F. Anything warmer will produce excess meltwater that can cling to your sled. This process, called capillary drag, decreases speeds.

Bitterly cold snow isn't better. When the mercury drops below 14°F, it's difficult to find a significant layer of lubricating meltwater. "When it's that cold, the liquid layer is not going to form without an excessive amount of friction," Kenneth Libbrecht, a Caltech physicist and snowflake specialist (who also served as snowflake consultant on Disney's Frozen), tells Mental Floss. In these conditions, the meltwater layer may be as thin as a single H20 molecule, making your sled scrape against the asperities, or rough edges, of packed snow. You might as well be attempting to ride down a sand dune [PDF].

Unless you're the Winter Warlock or the Chinese government, you probably can't control the weather—but you can control how you prepare for it. Research shows that when it's wet and warm, a rough-bottomed sled etched with a shallow front-to-back pattern may be helpful. The pattern provides a smaller surface area for water molecules to grab, decreasing capillary drag.

At colder temperatures, when snowflakes are sharper and harder, it's important to make the bottom of your sled harder so you can plow over any asperities that would otherwise "grab" at your toboggan and slow you down. So coat the bottom of your sled in a hard, smooth substance like a synthetic hydrocarbon ski wax.

But no matter the temperature, the best way to skim over the meltwater layer is to lube up the bottom of your sled with hydrophobic materials, substances such as grease, oil, and wax that are literally "afraid of water." After consulting with the experts, I tested several hydrophobic lubricants—and I found them all in my house.

ONE MAN, ONE SLED, AND SIX LUBRICANTS

Our experiment took place at the public sledding hill in Woodstock, New York, wedged below the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. The thermometer read 29°F—firmly in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold meltwater Goldilocks Zone—and my backpack was stuffed with everyday hydrophobic materials: a $0.98 wax candle from Walmart, WD-40, PAM cooking spray, a hardwood paste wax, Adobo All-Purpose Seasoning, and bacon grease.

My vehicle? An $11 plastic blue-green sled that was clearly intended to ferry small children.

The slope here was gentle, but the snow was not. It was old, crusty, and hard. I later asked Libbrecht—who has classified 35 different types of snowflakes ("most of them look like sand, just little globs")—how conducive such a surface is for good speed-sledding. He explained that the shape of snowflakes changes quickly upon hitting the ground, becoming more spherical and smooth as they're compacted by the wind, sun, and other sledders. In other words: Like people, snow gets rounder with age.

This is great news for speed, but not so great for steering. On my first dry test run—my control—my average speed was approximately 12.6 mph. On my way down, I completed three pirouettes and cried for help at least once.

Wax Candle

unlit candle in metal holder
iStock

My 12.6-mph pace was a far cry from the world record for fastest sled run (83.5 mph), so I turned to wax.

Downhill snow racers have been using wax for more than a century. Before the 1940s, people tried a wide variety of natural substances to make the sled bottom slick, including beeswax, whale oil, pine resin, and tallow. By the mid-century, tobogganers rubbed their sleds with wax paper or a handy candle. Candles contain paraffin wax, a mix of straight-chained saturated hydrocarbons that contain 20 to 40 carbon atoms.

According to the book The Physics of Skiing, by David Lind and Scott P. Sanders, straight-chained hydrocarbons are the way to go. These molecules orient themselves in parallel structures and have strong intermolecular bonds, which keeps the wax hard at cool temperatures—thus giving better gliding properties. The molecules are also non-polar and don't interact kindly with polar molecules such as water. (Chunkier hydrocarbons, however, that have short chains branching off the primary chain, are softer and "more suitable for … waxes designed to increase traction or grab," write Lind and Sanders.)

Paraffin wax is also relatively hard and should do a good job riding over snow asperities as long as the snow isn't bitterly cold. And it does: For two minutes, I rubbed the cold candle into the base of the sled using a circular motion. Once my butt hit the sled, I was cruising. I hit approximately 17.98 mph.

WD-40

According to a comprehensive list, WD-40 has more than 2000 uses: It can remove gum from school bus seats, lubricate the wheels of tuba cases, and even prevent puppies from chewing on telephone lines. Also on the list: "Lubricates sleds and toboggans" [PDF].

This is no surprise: WD stands for "water displacement." And while the formula is technically secret, the sleuths at WIRED used gas chromatography in 2009 to reveal the black magic inside. Their conclusion: alkanes. Alkanes are water-repellant hydrocarbons that refuse to bond with either hydrogen or oxygen. In other words, exactly what I need under my sled.

It worked: After a noxious 10-second spray, the WD-40 clocked the same time as candle wax. But, phew, did my trip smell ungodly. Not only that, but I later learned that some alkanes are key to the German cockroach's ability to produce pheromones meant to attract mates. So I had that to look forward to.

PAM Original No-Stick Cooking Spray

If I were a scientist, I'd be testing all of these materials with the aim of determining their coefficient of friction, a figure that quantifies the amount of friction between two surfaces. It can be expressed by the following formula, which is, fittingly, dying to spell the word fun.

mathematical formula for sledding down a hill
Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss

You can measure the kinetic friction of materials with an instrument called an oscillograph. Unfortunately, I work for a media company. We don't have oscillographs.

However, I wish I had one for this part of the experiment. Because while the coefficient of friction for this skin-scraping snow was certainly low, I can't speak for my sled rub-a-dub-dubbed in canola oil. It should have had a low coefficient of friction, but the "No-stick" spray lived true to its name in all the wrong ways—by failing to stick to the bottom of my sled. It disappeared almost immediately, making my PAM time just as slow as my control run.

Hardwood Paste Wax

Paste wax is the lubricant of champions. Just ask Tom Cox, a former champion of the U.S. National Toboggan Championships, held annually in Camden, Maine. Cox is also its chief toboggan inspector, ensuring that the 400 wooden sleds that race every year meet the competition's guidelines.

He's seen all sorts of substances slathered onto the bottom of sleds, from cross country wax to lemon Pledge. "Everybody does it different, and I can't tell you what the secret is," Cox tells Mental Floss. "I won the whole thing in 2003, and we used a paste wax, a hardwood floor wax, but I don't know if that's the answer, because I haven't won since."

Cox may be stuck in a competitive rut, but he's a proven champion, and I trust his methods. That said, I quickly learned that paste wax is best smeared on wood, not plastic. Using my hands, I spread the soft wax; it was lumpy and uneven, like dried-out peanut butter. I attracted quizzical glances from passersby who perhaps thought I was gobbing sandwich spread onto my sled. Oh, and it left a chunky brown trail of goop down the hill.

But who cares? My sled nearly hit 20 miles per hour.

In conditions like these, flirting with snow's melting point, a softer wax like paste wax may be ideal. The coefficient for waxed wood on dry snow is remarkably low: 0.04. (The closer the number is to zero, the slippier it is. For comparison, the coefficient for ice-against-ice is around 0.03.) I can only imagine how low the number might be for a plastic kiddie sled.

Adobo All-Purpose Seasoning

Another special ingredient that has also appeared on the bottom of sleds at the National Toboggan Championships? Onion powder.

Some sledders think that applying a fine powder is like adding tiny ball bearings to the bottom of a sled. In truth, a mildly grainy bottom may help reduce capillary drag in warm conditions, stopping any clingy meltwater from hitching a ride. You can see this happen with superhydrophobic materials such as lotus leaves, which are composed of thousands of tiny microscopic pillars. Those raised bumps decrease the points of contact between the leaf and a water droplet, ensuring that water will simply roll off. In fact, dozens of ski wax manufacturers are attempting to create waxes that mimic the nanostructure of lotus leaves. It's this principle that I hoped I could achieve with onion powder.

But when I couldn't find onion powder in my kitchen, I turned to Adobo seasoning, which might as well be the WD-40 of seasoning. Chicken. Steak. Chicken-fried steak. You can sprinkle this pixie dust on anything and it just works. Adobo might not contain onion powder, but if it can trick unwitting people into believing that I'm a talented cook, perhaps it could work similar magic on my sledding abilities. I wetted the bottom of my sled with a spritz of water and generously seasoned my plastic chariot.

It flopped. Whatever the reason, after three futile attempts down the hill, all the Adobo did was leave behind a glowing trail of yellow snow.

Bacon Grease

bacon frying in a pan
iStock

Before the 2018 Super Bowl, Philadelphia police prevented rabid Eagles fans from converting local streetlights into adult-sized monkey bars by scrubbing the city's utility poles with Bio-Bottle Jack Hydraulic Fluid, an environmentally friendly lubricant. I was hungry to apply this legendary goo to my sled, but when I called local suppliers and asked to purchase it, all of them told me delivery would take weeks. I suspected the city of Philadelphia had gobbled up the east coast's stockpile.

So I turned to the NFC Championship Game, when Philly's police slathered utility poles with Crisco. Thankfully, I had a better alternative in my fridge: bacon fat. Anybody who has tried to wash their hands of rendered pig blubber knows that it hates water. Indeed, the grease spread onto my sled like melted butter. It was soft and waxy, and its smell mingled with all of the other scents on my hands—vanilla, canola oil, aerosol propellant, potential cockroach pheromone, paste wax, chicken seasoning—to create a miasma that is beyond my abilities to describe. I may or may not have licked my fingers. I may or may not have regretted it.

Around this time, a mother and a small child began walking toward the hill. I waved to them. They stopped and gaped at me, this disheveled grown man sitting alone on a hill of brown and yellow snow, surrounded by discarded bottles of WD-40 and all-purpose seasoning, vigorously scrubbing a strange grease on the bottom of a fluorescent sled built for small children. The mother grabbed her child's hand and scurried in the opposite direction.

Anyway! Bacon grease clocked in at 17 miles per hour.

Perhaps I applied the grease too thickly. According to Lind and Sanders, an application of running wax should be between 0.005 and 0.02 millimeters thick: "If these final wax layers were any thicker, they would be more likely to pick up dirt from the surface of the snow, which, as we have seen, would increase friction."

In other words, there is such a thing as too much lube. When I buffed down the bacon grease with a cloth towel, I hit 19 miles per hour.

TIPS FOR YOUR RIDE

My sledding experiments weren't exactly scientifically rigorous. They weren't properly controlled. My sled never took the same route down the hill. The number of confounding variables that could have skewed each result is, well, confounding.

But the results do echo the advice of experts: If you can, sled in temperatures around 32°F, when the meltwater is an optimal thickness. Avoid the temptation of freshly fallen snow, and wait for those sharp snowflakes to be smoothed into a polished sledding path. If you have a wooden sled, sand it. (According to Cox, "The ones that go the fastest [at the National Toboggan Championships] are sanded before you put wax on it, sanded with a very, very fine paper, maybe 1500 grit.") If you can, choose an inner tube over a plastic sled. In a 2009 Journal of Trauma study titled "Sledding: How Fast Can They Go?" researchers found that inner tubes travel an average of 2 mph faster than plastic.

If you must use plastic, opt for polyethylene. It's hydrophobic and cheap. According to the glaciologist Samuel Colbeck, polyethylene is "hard, highly elastic, can be smoothed and imprinted with different patterns, can be made porous, can be easily coated with waxes, does not readily adhere to ice, and has a [coefficient of friction] that is not greatly affected by surface contamination" [PDF]. Lastly, coat your sled in a hydrophobic wax: A fluorocarbon ski wax is optimal, but do-it-yourselfers can always keep a candle in their pocket.

Also, bring Adobo. It won't make your sled faster, but it will leave a trail of bright yellow snow, guaranteeing you will have the hill all to yourself.

 

For more on the physics of snow sports, Mental Floss recommends David Lind and Scott P. Sanders's remarkable and authoritative book The Physics of Skiing.

10 Facts About the Dwarf Planet Eris

An artist's rendering of the dwarf planet Eris
An artist's rendering of the dwarf planet Eris
ESO/L. Calçada and Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org) // CC BY 4.0

Far beyond the orbit of Pluto exists a celestial body that’s a little smaller, a little colder, and a little denser—the dwarf planet Eris. In Greek mythology, Eris is the goddess of strife, and never was there a more appropriately named body in the solar system. When astronomer Mike Brown of Caltech and his team discovered Eris in 2005, the finding set off a chain reaction that would see the planetary status of Pluto called into question. Here are 10 things you might not know about Eris.

1. An Eridian day is just slightly longer than Earth's.

If you were an astronaut, you wouldn’t find an Eridian day, at 25.9 hours, too disconcerting. This compares favorably with, say, Venus, whose day lasts 5832 hours (admittedly, it's an outlier). An Eridian year is a bit longer than what we're used to, with the dwarf planet completing an orbit of the Sun every 557 Earth years. And that orbit is not along the relatively flat plane with the orbits of most of the other planets of the solar system. Imagine your elementary school solar system model of planets on wires around a light bulb: Instead of a path neatly aligned with the other planets, Eris’s orbit is tilted at a 44 degree angle.

2. Eris was once thought to be bigger than Pluto.

After Eris’s discovery, the best measurements then available placed it as slightly larger than Pluto, with a radius of 722 miles. But after the initial spacecraft reconnaissance of Pluto by New Horizons in 2015, Pluto’s ranking as the ninth-largest planetary object orbiting the Sun was restored; it is now known to have a radius of 736 miles. In comparison, Earth’s Moon has a radius of 1079 miles. Ganymede, Callisto, Io, and Europa (Jupiter’s largest moons), Titan (Saturn’s largest moon), and Triton (Neptune’s largest moon) are also bigger than Pluto. On the other hand, Eris is 34 percent denser than Pluto.

3. Eris is responsible for the big debate over the definition of "planet."

When Brown’s team discovered Eris, it was initially hailed as either the 10th planet of the solar system, or a big problem for scientists who like nicely ordered celestial objects. The discovery of Eris came on the heels of the discoveries of Sedna and Quaoar, both beyond the orbit of Neptune. Astronomers were looking at the possibility of a dozen planets in the solar system or more, because—based on these three—who knew how many Pluto-sized bodies were out there? The International Astronomical Union eventually defined a planet in our solar system as something that has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium (in other words, it's round), orbits the Sun, and has “cleared its neighborhood” (i.e., is gravitationally dominant in its orbit). Yet the debate continues [PDF].

4. It has its own moon.

Eris has a moon called Dysnomia that circles the dwarf planet every 16 days. In Greek mythology, Dysnomia is the name of one of Eris’s daughters and means “anarchy.”

5. Initially, Eris was called Xena.

Before it was called Eris, it was called 2003 UB313 (a provisional designation by the International Astronomical Union). But before that, Brown’s team of astronomers named it Xena—yes, of Warrior Princess fame. “We always wanted to name something Xena,” Brown told The New York Times in 2005 after the discovery. Among Brown’s colleagues, Dysnomia was called Gabrielle, who was, of course, Xena’s sidekick.

6. Its surface is like Pluto's heart.

The primary way to analyze the composition of the surface of a celestial body is through spectroscopy, which is basically looking at an object and seeing how much light comes back at you as a function of wavelength. Many materials have characteristic absorptions of light at certain frequencies, and so less light will come back to you at that frequency.

“Eris has very, very strong methane ice absorption bands,” Will Grundy, a planetary scientist at Lowell Observatory and a member of the New Horizons team, tells Mental Floss. “They are much stronger than Pluto’s, and of course we’ve seen methane all over the place on Pluto, so I think it’ll be more ubiquitous on Eris’s surface.” The implication is that Eris is more than just a dead ice rock in space, because methane degrades very quickly in a space environment, darkening and forming heavier hydrocarbons. “The fact that it’s bright and covered with methane ice says it’s refreshing its surface relatively rapidly, and there are any number of ways it can do that. One is the methane just periodically sublimates underneath the atmosphere and then re-condenses somewhere else, just sort of painting on top of whatever dark stuff that forms,” Grundy says.

7. Pluto data enriches our understanding of Eris.

Pluto data returned from the New Horizons spacecraft give scientists new ideas about the processes that might be at work on Eris. “One of the things the Pluto flyby showed us that nobody really talked about, even in wild speculations, was something like Sputnik Planitia: this big, bright, teardrop-shaped region on the encounter hemisphere. Volatile ices there are trapped in a deep basin and they are just convectively overturning, like a simmering pot of soup,” Grundy says.

That process might be happening writ large on Eris. It might be, in a sense, an ice lava lamp planet. “I’ve called it a Sputnik planet,” Grundy says, “but nature is much more clever than scientists at coming up with new ways of doing things with the same old ingredients. Who knows, we might get there and find out it’s doing something completely different than Pluto was doing to refresh its surface. The real lesson is that activity on a lot of different timescales is possible, even on a tiny little planet that’s at frigid temperatures, far away from the sun.”

8. Its neighborhood is a potential gold mine of information.

In comparative planetology, scientists use planets to understand other planets. By studying Venus, which is similar to Earth in terms of size, mass, and basic composition, scientists can better understand how our planet operates and evolved. The objects in Eris’s celestial neighborhood work the same way. “The Kuiper Belt”—a region rich in rocky and icy objects beyond Neptune’s orbit—“is an incredibly rich environment for comparative planetology because there are so just many of these tiny planets out there,” Grundy says. “It’s going to take a while to discover them all, let alone explore them all, but that’s what is exciting about it.” The New Horizons data from Pluto are helping planetary scientists develop models to tease out the secrets of Eris.

9. Geologists could learn a lot, too.

“If you work out the surface area of, say, objects there that are bigger than 100 kilometers, based on extrapolation, the Kuiper Belt has more solid geology surface area than of all of the planets in the solar system—including the terrestrial planets—combined,” Grundy explains, adding that it holds true even if you wanted to include the ocean floor on Earth. “If you like geology—and especially if you like exotic, cryogenic temperature geology—this is the place to explore, and there’s just so much territory to explore out there.”

10. A mission to Eris will take a while.

It took New Horizons, one of the fastest spacecrafts ever built, nine years to get to Pluto. Eris is currently three times farther from the Sun than Pluto (though due to a highly elliptical orbit, this number changes), so if a mission is ever approved, don’t expect to find out how it all ends. “It takes decades to pull something like that together, so if you want to be around to see the results, you’ve got to start young,” Grundy says. A possible future Kuiper Belt mission might be part of a flyby mission to Uranus or Neptune, after which the spacecraft would continue into that region of space. It will be a very long time before technology allows an Earth-centric telescope—in space or otherwise—to take pictures of the geology of Eris.

Bizarre New Giant Salamander Species Discovered in Florida

There’s something in the water in Florida, but it’s not the swamp monster locals may have feared. According to National Geographic, scientists have discovered a new species of giant salamander called a reticulated siren, and you can find the 2-foot-long amphibian in the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Locals have long reported seeing a creature with leopard-like spots, the body of an humongous eel, and axolotl-like frills sprouting out of the sides of its head, but its existence wasn’t described in scientific literature until now. Researchers from Texas and Georgia recently published their findings in the journalPLOS ONE.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells National Geographic. He had been trapping turtles at the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, in 2009 when he caught one of the creatures by chance. After that encounter, the researchers set out to find more specimens.

Colloquially, locals have long been calling the creature a leopard eel. Because the reticulated siren only has two tiny front limbs, it's easy to mistake it for an eel. Its hind limbs disappeared throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, and it also lacks eyelids and has a beak instead of the teeth that are typical of other salamander species.

They belong to a genus of salamanders called sirens, which are one of the largest types of salamander in the world. The second part of the species’ name comes from the reticulated pattern seen on all of the individuals that were examined by researchers. The reticulated siren is also one of the largest vertebrates to be formally described by scientists in the U.S. in the last 100 years, according to the paper.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the reticulated siren. They lead hidden lives below the surface of the water, and they’re thought to subsist on insects and mollusks. Researchers say further study is urgently needed because there's a chance the species could be endangered.

[h/t National Geographic]

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