July 13, 2014


New study untangles the mystery of knots (Robert Matthews, July 12, 2014, The National)

Not until the 1980s did mathematicians succeed in proving what most people might regard as obvious: that the longer the string-like object being jumbled, the greater the chances of it becoming knotted.

The theory led to a formula for how the risk of knots depends on length. And the bad news is that this risk increases rapidly with length.

In other words, Murphy's Law of Knots is also true: if something can get knotted, it will.

So what can we do? I realised the very same theory suggested a remedy: simply clip together the ends of the flex, rope or whatever, to form a loop.

This cuts the risk of knots in two ways. First, it effectively halves the length of the flex available to move around. Second, the creation of a loop also eliminates the two free ends, the prime movers in the formation of knots.

While this "Loop Conjecture" sounded plausible, it clearly needed confirmation. So again I enlisted the help of schools to carry out the necessary experiment. And once again, the response was impressive: one school alone contributed more than 12,000 data-points.

The results - to be published in a refereed journal this year - confirm the theory in mathematical detail.

First, they show that the risk of knots increases rapidly with length. But more importantly, they confirmed the Loop Conjecture. Simply clipping together ends of any string-like object greatly reduces the risk of tangling.

Pretty much any type of clip will work. With headphones, it's vital to ensure that both earpiece buds are held together with the jackplug at the other end. Even a bit of leeway can be enough to allow Murphy's Law of Knots to kick in.

Posted by at July 13, 2014 8:24 AM

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