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"Just a random question: What do you think would hypothetically happen if people did not coat the lanes at bowling alleys with lubricants?"

First of all, I want to make it clear that not only am I not a bowling lane lubricant expert, I'm also not a bowling expert of any kind. I haven't been bowling in years. But your question reminded me of something that used to fascinate me as a teenager. We had a candlepin bowling place in town, and a group of teens from our church would often go there on a weekend evening to bowl.

There was an elderly little man named Harry who was always there. I used to watch him bowl with fascination. While everyone else was racing to the line and giving a powerful swing of the arm, little old Harry would waddle. I kid you not. It was almost painful to watch the snail's pace with which he would approach the line. And he was always holding the ball overhand instead of underhand like everyone else did. Basically he just walked up to the line with his arm hanging limply at his side.

And then, at the last moment, he'd give a flick of his wrist, and that ball would go skidding down the lane, and the pins would go flying. It was a strike every time. That little old man had perfect 300 score cards hung all over the walls of that place, and had won about every local bowling competition.

What was his secret? Well, I'm sure he had more than one, but here's one of Old Harry's secrets: backspin. Notice I said the ball skidded down the lane. Sure, it was rolling, but it was rolling backward, which meant it was really just floating in lane oil. What did that do for him? Consider the two images below.

In the first image, we see a ball approaching the pins with a forward spin. You know what that ball is going to do to the pins? It's going to knock them down. But knocking pins down wasn't what happened when Old Harry was bowling. Take a look at the next picture, which shows a bowling ball approaching the pins with a reversed or back spin.


You know what that bowling ball is going to do? Sure, it's going to knock the pins over, but because of its spin direction, it was knocking those pins up. That backspin made the pins go flying everywhere. One pin flying upward would wreak a lot of havoc on the rest of the pins.

So what does this have to do with the lane lubricant? Simple. The lubricant lowers the coefficient of friction on the lane, which allows the ball to spin backward longer, before the spin slows to a stop and reverses to a forward spin (Try it sometime - send the ball down the lane with a backspin, and if the ball is multi-colored, you should be able to see the point at which it stops spinning backward and reverses to a forward spin). So if there was no oil on the lane, Old Harry's bowling ball would have reversed its spin before reaching the pins, and less havoc would have ensued.

And goodness knows, any time we can have havoc, we approve. :)

That coefficient of friction will also make a huge difference when it comes to sideways spins. Depending on how you release the ball, you can make the the ball do a nice "hook" at the last minute, and nail the pins at an angle.  This is an important technique.

But when the ball hooks isn't just dependent on how you spin it; it's also dependent on the coefficient of friction. If there's no friction whatsoever (entirely theoretical - there's always friction), the spin will be completely irrelevant; the ball will go straight into the pins (line A). If the coefficient of friction is just right, the ball will do a combination of sliding and rolling, and hook at the very last moment (line B). Too much friction, and the hook happens too early, sending your ball careening into the gutter (line C).

But all of this depends on your having very good control of your release of the ball; for me, it was always a major accomplishment to have a frame without a gutter ball. Just a little piece of evidence that theoretical knowledge doesn't always give practical advantage!

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