Physicists finally explain why your earphones are always tangled.

By Seriously Science | June 18, 2014 6:00 am
Photo: Flickr/Steven Guzzardi

Photo: Flickr/Steven Guzzardi

There are few day-to-day events that send me into a rage as quickly as a pair of tangled earphones. As soon as I put them down, they somehow thread themselves into an unholy mess. And don’t even think about putting them into your pocket or bag. So how do headphones (and other stringy objects) get so knotted in such a short time? To find out, these physicists started by tumbling strings of different stiffness in a box. They found that “complex knots often form within seconds” (so it’s not just my imagination!), and that stiffer strings are less likely to get knotted up. They then used these data and computer simulations to explain how the knots are likely formed (see figure below); basically, when jostled, the strings tend to form coils, and then the loose end weaves through the other strands, much like braiding or weaving. And voila! Tangled headphones to make your day just that much angrier.

Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string.

“It is well known that a jostled string tends to become knotted; yet the factors governing the “spontaneous” formation of various knots are unclear. We performed experiments in which a string was tumbled inside a box and found that complex knots often form within seconds. We used mathematical knot theory to analyze the knots. Above a critical string length, the probability P of knotting at first increased sharply with length but then saturated below 100%. This behavior differs from that of mathematical self-avoiding random walks, where P has been proven to approach 100%. Finite agitation time and jamming of the string due to its stiffness result in lower probability, but P approaches 100% with long, flexible strings. We analyzed the knots by calculating their Jones polynomials via computer analysis of digital photos of the string. Remarkably, almost all were identified as prime knots: 120 different types, having minimum crossing numbers up to 11, were observed in 3,415 trials. All prime knots with up to seven crossings were observed. The relative probability of forming a knot decreased exponentially with minimum crossing number and Möbius energy, mathematical measures of knot complexity. Based on the observation that long, stiff strings tend to form a coiled structure when confined, we propose a simple model to describe the knot formation based on random “braid moves” of the string end. Our model can qualitatively account for the observed distribution of knots and dependence on agitation time and string length.”

Schematic illustration of the simplified model for knot formation. Because of its stiffness, the string tends to coil in the box, as seen in Fig. 1, causing a number of parallel string segments to lie parallel adjacent the end segment. As discussed in the text, we model knots as forming due to a random series of braid moves of the end segment among the adjacent segments (diagrams at bottom). The overall connectivity of the segments is indicated by the dashed line.

Schematic illustration of the simplified model for knot formation. Because of its stiffness, the string tends to coil in the box, as seen in Fig. 1, causing a number of parallel string segments to lie parallel adjacent the end segment. As discussed in the text, we model knots as forming due to a random series of braid moves of the end segment among the adjacent segments (diagrams at bottom). The overall connectivity of the segments is indicated by the dashed line.

Related content:
NCBI ROFL: Will this research untangle scientific mysteries? I’m a frayed knot!
NCBI ROFL: Domestic cats do not show causal understanding in a string-pulling task.
NCBI ROFL: No way. According to my tongue, that hole is definitely wider. (That’s what she said.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: rated G
  • dotjean

    I face this “terror” every night as I reach for my Ipod for some relaxing music to aid in sleep! I am going to sew mine onto a zipper (as seen on a geek website) to help end this “terrifying dilemma” !

    • Serawit

      Sleeping with an ear plug can disrupt the dynamics of your ear canal and cause ear infection.Better to dock that iThing on a docking station next to your bed.

  • Steve Baker

    Storing wires, garden hoses and such in a figure-8 winding pattern instead of a circular one goes a long way to avoiding tangles because it limits the amount of crossing that can happen. Of course if the disruption is enough to destroy the figure-8 shape, then you’re in trouble again. With thick objects (like garden hoses) using a figure-8 storage pattern also avoids twisting around the axis parallel to the hose which helps to avoid writhing and (in the case of garden hoses) kinking.

    • kristiekburchfield

      just before I looked at the receipt ov $8130 , I
      didn’t believe that my sister woz like actualy bringing in money part-time from
      there pretty old laptop. . there aunts neighbour has been doing this 4 only
      about 22 months and at present repayed the mortgage on their appartment and
      bought themselves a Chrysler . see here M­o­n­e­y­d­u­t­i­e­s­.­C­O­M­

  • Steve V

    Whilst these people were waiting for P to approach 100% and counting prime knots, I’d detangled my earphones and moved on to more pressing issues.

    • John Schickler

      You missed the entire point of the research. It was not about headphones – that was a “grabber” to get attention. This type of research would seem to have a myriad of uses in many industries.

  • Serawit

    Really?! Did we need a physicist to explain this age old problem? I hope they did this ‘experiment’ in their spare time. It’d be shame if this project was funded by some foundation, as the money can be better used to unravel more pressing mysteries.

    • truthify

      Curmudgeon.

      When they sell earphones that won’t knot — which do you think you’ll buy?

      • Serawit

        Clueless.

        You can’t have your cake and eat it too. As long as you want soft and flexible earphones with cord, they’ll always knot. There is a solution already, bluetooth earphones.

        • The_Xander_Crews

          You are assuming their device has bluetooth. Many mp3/music players/radios are not bluetooth…so it’s not a solution for a lot of folks.

          • Serawit

            You’re off topic.

          • The_Xander_Crews

            What? How do you figure? Bluetooth headphones can’t be used if the device doesn’t have bluetooth. It was a direct comment to your bluetooth headphone suggestion.

          • Serawit

            The problem is why corded earphones knot. The solution is wireless headphones. You introduced an unrelated topic as to how some people can’t afford wireless enabled devices. This is not a socioeconomic discussion. Comprende?

          • John Schickler

            The problem is why CORDS knot. The headphone cord heading was an example to gain attention. The same type of correction is why heavier extension cords that knotted have been re-engineered to make them useful.

          • Ross Andrew Simons

            Dude, get a life. I counted 20+ comments of you on here just disagreeing with people. Man, just go about your life, be an individual, and enjoy it–rather than getting all worked up over stupid online articles.

          • Serawit

            You have nothing substantial to say about my argument, so you resort to ad hominem attacks. I just happened to be interested in the topic, and thank you.

          • Vash

            Many iPhones, iPods, and iPads are bluetooth capable. Many other phones are too, including one of my old Nokia flip phones before iPhone was developed. More and more, people are using devices that have bluetooth on it. So it’s inaccurate to say “Many mp3/music players/radios are not bluetooth…so it’s not a solution for a lot of folks.” but more accurate to say “it’s not a solution for the few folks without bluetooth capable devices.” I’ve yet to find a media device that couldn’t use bluetooth where headphones/earphones could be necessary for use. Maybe if this were still 2007, there might not be so many bluetooth capable devices, but we’re in 2014. This article is posted in 2014. We have more bluetooth capable media devices than we do devices that only accepts a 3.5mm audio connection.

          • Wil Post

            Unless your Bluetooth headphones are actual headphones then you’ll be needing a cord. I have yet to see any quality earbuds that are completely cordless. None. Zero.

            I use a wireless bluetooth media controller (Jabra BT3030) for sound, for example, when I am doing dishes. It has a 3.5mm jack in it so I can plug in whatever headphones I want.

            In fact, the only headphones that I have seen that are completely bluetooth are the Beats audio ones, huge ones, and they are more than a couple hundred dollars for a pair. There are probably some competing brands (probably Bose has one but I am not curious enough to look), but I can almost guarantee you will not find wireless (bluetooth) earbuds.

            Bluetooth earpiece? Sure, easy. Bluetooth earbugs? Nope.

            And unless you spend hundreds of dollars on audio… earbuds will give you the best sound.

            I currently use some Skullcandy Earbuds with a flat, stiff cable. They generally do not tangle at all. I don’t remember headphones with flat cords existing 7 years ago…

            So tell me again how irrelevant researching tangling headphone cables is. Please.

          • Vash

            Good job, genius. You completely ignored the comment’s point. My comment was a response about the *lack* of Bluetooth media devices (MP3, iPods, Computers, Phones, etc). There are more Bluetooth devices (again, iPods, Phones, Computers) than there are media devices without bluetooth (again, not about headphones/earphones). So tell me again how relevant your comment is to mine, genius. Please. Otherwise, reply to the correct comment.

          • Wil Post

            Because, Vash, regardless of if the device has bluetooth or not you will need to have a wire to carry the signal from the device to your ear. Either from the device directly to your ear, via earbuds, or to your ear via the bluetooth device such as my own Jabra BT3030 – unless you do not care about stereo or high fidelity sound and use something like a single ear bluetooth device.

            Take a chill pill and think about it.

          • Vash

            I have Bluetooth Headphones (technically a Headset, but functions as both), stereo, manufactured by Rocket Fish. Sound is awesome and easy to pair, no wire needed to carry a signal. Used it with a 2nd generation iPod Touch for a while, then paired it with a few computers, paired it with some phones, even paired it with a PS Vita. Best investment I’ve ever made, and it didn’t even cost $100+.

            I saved myself the hassle of a tangled up cord when setting my headphones down. Your comment still has no relevance to my original comment though. Try reading The_Xander_Crews’ comment, then read mine. You see just how relevant your comment is? You swung your bat and missed the ball. Way to go, genius.

          • Wil Post

            Earbuds, genius. I was pretty specific. I typed it out multiple times, genius, your reading comprehension failed you there. You can’t fit your stereo bluetooth headphones into your pocket. I can my dongle and earbuds, they have a wire but altogether I have to carry much less weight than you, use less power, most likely get better sound, and paid much less in total. You keep going on as if you can’t understand a corollary, genius.

          • Vash

            Hey genius, you keep talking about earbuds, but you keep replying to the wrong string of comments. The person I replied to wasn’t talking about earbuds or headphones, genius. So go ahead and keep talking about my reading comprehension. Yours is worse, genius. Keep swinging that bat of yours. You still can’t hit anything. You need to be replying to Serawit, genius.

      • LarryWallpaper

        The wireless ones.

    • Argum

      “Dolt” – unravel that.

      • Serawit

        Nothing like a healthy dose of insult to start the day!

    • Ewoud van Pareren

      I agree that this seems like a bit of a silly research subject, but I imagine that if you’re really going into it mathematically, it might be quite fascinating. Besides, there was once a time when people thought that theories involving prime numbers were a waste of resources and intellect, since they had no practical use whatsoever. Now exactly those theories are essential for many encryption systems.

      • Serawit

        That’s the first uninspired false equivalence fallacy I have heard today. I’m sure there are many more to come.

        • http://www.mikemorkes.com Mike Morkes

          Ironic, considering you’re implying that it’s flat-out impossible to have any equivalence, as if this type of research has never been applied in the past to other related fields. Does that mean this particular discovery is going to cure cancer? Probably not, but to dismiss it out of hand is short-sighted and ignorant.

          • Serawit

            The key difference between prime number theories and this exercise is novelty. Theories, even when impractical, introduce novel ideas. This exercise, introduced nothing novel. I’ll forego the temptation to respond to your last statement in kind.

          • Bobby Bryla

            Oh Serawit, but I WILL have to agree that you’re a close-minded selfish greedy moron who’ll probably keep voting for the teabagger party. God forbid any research is done that doesn’t benefit you directly. Idiot.

          • Serawit

            If you knew me, you’d be astounded by what you thought of a good assessment of who I am. The profile pic threw you for a loop, didn’t it? Back to topic now, Bobby! A middle aged man still calling himself Bobby!

            Oh, and what does politics has to do with this? For your info, I cannot vote in the U.S., as I am not a U.S. citizen. Want to try again?

          • gberke

            I thought Bobby (Booby) made a spectacular leap of anger and just hurled (underhand) whatever poo he had close at hand. Greedy? Selfish? It’s almost something for Sherlock Holmes, who would also have deduced there was a mole you have on the left side of your neck just under your collar, precancerous as they all are, rather safe but something to take care of this year since you have already paid the health insurance deductible… Oh, Sherlock said he rather liked your policy. I do NOT know how he does it!

          • Damian Black

            Sherlock wouldn’t mention health insurance, Brits have the NHS. ;)

          • Leonard Martinez

            Thank you for supporting my theory. It’s based only on anecdotal evidence, but I think it’s true: People on the left of the political spectrum are not nice people.

          • John Schickler

            Your generalization is completely without merit. Look at the politics and lack of respect for humanity shown by the current right wing.

          • Rain Water Systems

            Do tell.
            You mean protest of the Obama highway dumping tens if thousands of central American peasants in to our already jacked economy?
            I find treason and dereliction of duty highly objectional.

          • Carly Corday

            He SAID it was anecdotal. That means it is a personal anecdote. That’s the only merit he claims for it. So it’s without merit to say he is completely without merit. Shape up, young people. :/

          • Carly Corday

            Lots of them aren’t. LOTS and LOTS. Even from over here where I stand, on the far fringe of the ultra-left, lots of them aren’t. Lots of times, they are mirror images of the emptily self-certain right.

          • JohnnyD

            “. . . but I think it’s true. . .”

            You CONCLUDE it’s true. Because clearly no “thinking” went into this.

            “All the leftists I know are always angry. The murdering traitors act like they’re always being called names and being blamed for things they don’t deserve!”

            An example of a “thought-free” feedback loop, which blames people for acting in a way that is actually their response to having been accused in the first place. All that’s required is to make the initial unsubstantiated, unjustified claim, and then just stand back, because it becomes free-running after that, thanks to comments sections just like this one. But as evidence of any kind of negative behavior on the left, it shows only that they don’t appreciate having lies ascribed to them by people without any command of the actual facts.

            Particularly when the behavior is such an obvious projection of their own.

            Can’t imagine why that would make anyone angry

          • Vash

            “Oh Serawit, but I WILL have to agree that you’re a close-minded selfish greedy moron who’ll probably keep voting for the teabagger party. God forbid any research is done that doesn’t benefit you directly. Idiot.”
            Close-minded? Moron? Idiot? Sounds like you too! Are you sensing a pattern here? You accuse one person of these labels, yet you present yourself as these labels as well and introduce another one that the dictionary recognizes called “hypocrite”. We humans have a long ways to go, that’s for sure. I fear what the future will look like in 20 years. Will we be smarter and have moved past degrading each other or will we become even more primitive-minded than we already are? That sounds like a better research project than the tangled string research because someone was annoyed by their tangled earphones. Good thing I invested in getting a Bluetooth headset. It works wonders in decreasing the chances of tangled “strings.”

          • Rain Water Systems

            Do you know that ” tea bagging ” is the act of rubbing ones genitals on the face of another person that does not desire or anticipate said genital rubbing?
            You can pay all the taxes you like, and keep your snappy comebacks classy.
            I am taxed enough already.
            That’s what ” the tea party ” means, smart guy.
            Now, maybe you think your Lord and Savior’s carbon credit scheme will actually change the environment via yet more taxation, but I recognize a pile of offal when I see it.
            And you sir, are no pile of offal. You are a liberal, and and that is worse. Liberalism is is a serious mental disorder that I would submit my taxes to cure.

          • John Schickler

            This would be amazing to help engineers develop headcords and other items that do not tangle. What a time saver. They critical, creative thinking.

          • Patrick

            I thought it was slightly,fascinating :/

        • RoyShastid

          Serawit You really shouldn’t try to use big words…or even write.

          • Serawit

            You had to look up those simple words, didn’t you! Hehe!

    • Ralphus

      @Serawit:disqus I agree with you. In this day and age whose got that kind of money to just fritter away on hogwash like that. In my day we learned the value of a dollar. That’s something these young people today need to learn!

      • Serawit

        Now easy there Ralphie! I think scientists do some awesome work that enlighten us all. I just hope this one is just a harmless pastime which didn’t cost anybody anything.

        • Daniel Mathieson

          Even if it didn’t cost any research company money. We could take the next step and say it still cost this scientist time and/or sleep which could have been used to cure cancer. So regardless it was a drain from the worlds thinktank. Vacations, bathroom breaks, and death are also taking from “serious science”

      • The_Xander_Crews

        What “old folks” need to quit doing is stifling research and investigation into things they think are “hogwash”. You “old folks” would be happy if nothing were discovered again or researched ever again because you are so set in your ways you don’t give a crap about change, even if it is for the better.

        What you “old folks” need to realize is that even the most seemingly odd research & discoveries can have extremely important applications down the road. Or someone may get an idea for something completely unrelated, based on these findings.

        NEVER criticize someone for trying to figure out why something is the way it is, why something happens the way it does, or why something works the way it does. Because the discoveries made in all kinds of research are what keep us evolving as a society…no matter how silly you think it is.

        You may be perfectly happy eating the old cancer causing red m & m’s, or drinking coffee from your coffee cup lined with lead paint while smoking cigarettes, or working with asbestos tile, or letting your children play on dangerous 1950′s playground equipment, or playing in the DDT cloud used to kill mosquitoes. But for me…I’m glad people are constantly looking into things and figuring out how things work, and what we can do to make them better.

        Due to research on why cords like these tangle so easily, may lead to an invention to stop it, which may be applied in other devices that are much more important in the grand scheme of things.

        Shame on you sir.

        • Daniel Mathieson

          That was a great post and I 99% totally agree. People should aways stay curious about everything, always. I could only agree with you 99% because of the red M&M part.

          From Wikipedia ”

          Red candies were eliminated in 1976[27] because of health concerns over the dye amaranth (FD&C Red #2), which was a suspected carcinogen,
          and were replaced with orange-colored candies. This was done despite
          the fact that M&M’s did not contain the dye; the action was purely
          to satisfy worried consumers. Red candies were reintroduced ten years
          later, but they also kept the orange colored M&M’s.
          In July 2009, a study showed that a dye similar to that in blue
          M&M’s showed benefits in helping paralyzed rats to walk again”

      • Curious

        These young people are doing amazing things! Billions of dollars’ worth of it.

    • MrNiceCar

      You’d be surprised how much of the world around is a result of this sort of “playful” science.

      • Serawit

        I have read much of the scientific discoveries of the past century are accidental (chance occurrences), but not playful. Source?

        • Surprisingly Blank

          1) I use bioluminescence all the time in my biochem labs. We can tag cells with it because a guy was curious how a jellyfish lit up. He had zero practical uses in mind when he isolated the enzyme.

          2) Practical use for this data: Rope and tubing storage.

          3) You must find zero joy in the IG Nobel awards. It shows that all around the world people are doing silly but brilliant science.

        • MrNiceCar

          From Richard Feynman: “I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance… I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is …” and I showed him the accelerations.

          He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?”

          “Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked.

          It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was.The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

    • Paul K

      “undirected” research of this kind is the sort of thing that occasionally produces the real breakthroughs, the ones that change the world. We don’t know which ones in advance. Letting smart people figure out interesting things turns out to be a pretty good strategy for advancing human knowledge.
      And for anyone interested – Sony produce several headphones with “tangle-free” cords – they are flat in cross section rather than circular, and therefore very stiff in at least one plane of movement. I wonder how the maths works with that?

      • Serawit

        Probing space is un-directed science. Explaining why soft and flexible chords knot is like explaining why I fall to the ground when I jump off my roof. I’m not saying it’s not worth explaining. I’m saying its trivial.

        • Dubbelyoo Bee

          It’s a good thing Isaac Newton didn’t have your attitude.

        • Bobby Bryla

          Yes, and we’d all be better off if you did jump off your roof and put you out of our misery.

          • Serawit

            Inevitably, there is always one moron who finds misery in online discussion forums enough to issue a death threat! Well done, Bobby! You’re that moron today.

          • Rain Water Systems

            Sheesh.
            You are a nasty little pimple. Perhaps someday you’ll get popped.

        • http://www.kertongroup.com Derek Kerton

          Saying you fall is trivial. Coming up with the universal laws of gravitation is the kind of things for which they cast you in marble and make you a statue.

        • Ginafred

          For someone studying why proteins can fold themselves into knots and cause disease states, this is pretty interesting. And not trivial.

    • JamesPaulWhite

      Do we need a psychologist to explain why a guy who obviously doesn’t understand science or research responds to every single post in an article about scientific research?

      • Serawit

        I have a psychological theory about one who has nothing to add to the debate, but is readily willing to attack another for putting forward a spirited debate: I think you’ve been told to shut up one too many times as a child? And may be for a good reason?

    • Phil

      This project is obviously useful. Much time is spent each day untangling cords. Headphones, extension cords, network cables, a rope to save your life. Understanding the causes can increase efficiency elsewhere. What if increasing the stiffness of the rope was economical due to saved time? Seemingly silly research is much more useful than the seriously low quality research from many institutions.

      • Serawit

        You have a point there. I guess it would have made more sense to experiment with a more practical object than an earphone. Earphones have to be soft and flexible, if they’re corded. Otherwise they’re impractical. Either way, I think this is a poorly designed experiment or something trivial that is intended to capture the attention of the gullible masses, thus a low quality research.

        • Daniel Mathieson

          earphones are something that the majority of online people deal with on a day to day basis. If he would have wrote the title “why lab tubes tangle” he would have lost a vast online audience. I think the choice of earbud cords, was probably the most brilliant part of this whole piece.

        • James The Chimp

          The true nature of the research is human health related, with some application to headphones and the like. I suppose if the article focused on strands of DNA tangling, no one would be arguing about it right now, no one would be trying to make it political, or hurling insults, because most of those people would have skipped the article entirely.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Vash The Stampede

          Did you actually read the research? It never mentions earphones, just the intro does. This is general research being made palpable to the masses by applying it in a way the layman would understand. Even the title is misleading as this research was ‘finally’ published in Oct. ’07.

        • Steve Killen

          mate, do yourself a favour and just admit that you’re wrong on this. Many people’s initial judgements are wrong, people will actually think better of you if you just stop with this defensive attitude and admit that this is actually something you have no knowledge of instead of maintaining a pseudo intellectual stance. There is no shame in that, a lot of us have no knowledge of this field of research. You’ll probably feel much better for taking a different approach as well.

          • Serawit

            The ‘thrown the towel because too many people are disagreeing with you’ argument. Classic. I bet you’re tenuously popular in your social circles, aren’t you,mate?

          • Steve Killen

            Ooh presumptive personal attacks! Sir, you really are a wit.

          • Serawit

            Look who is running from personal attacks now, after he instigated it! You had nothing to add but personal attack to this debate, and when I responded in kind, you cry like a little kid. Typical of your ilk whose identity is based on the social pecking order. Now, run off to your tenuous social circle for a much needed affirmation.

          • Steve Killen

            It’s sad that you saw my first reply as a personal attack as it was just an appeal. I feel that the internet would be a better place if once in a while the stubborn dissenting voice just holds his hands up and admits that his/her initial reaction was wrong. For instance I admit I was wrong in trying to appeal to any kind of reasoning you may have to admit that your original comment was a quick and myopic judgement.

          • Serawit

            It is sad. At least my stubborn stance was solidly rooted in the argument whether this is a sound research topic. You and a few others turned it into a personal attack. When I respond in kind, you cry foul.

            Here is what I’d admit; I still stand by my first comment and most of my subsequent ones, minus the personal banters.

          • Steve Killen

            Then I admire your conviction. Though I think your initial comment was something that has been said on articles like this many times before that is generally down to the journalistic spin that is put on the research. As much as I hate to admit it, stubbornness can occasionally be a virtue.

          • MikBys

            Your stance was more “solidly rooted in the argument” you perceived, rather than the arguments of the research being discussed.

            At least that kind of attitude fits with what you posted. Own goal indeed.

    • Daniel Mathieson

      I always look at think by motive, why they did it. Here it could have been just curiosity. Or it could have had a financial aspect. I could see this study being used to sell “unknotable” earbud cords, with this little diagram on the back as a selling point. Don’t ever underestimate the power of money.

    • http://www.kertongroup.com Derek Kerton

      That’s a silly dismissal of the research! How do you or I know what the possible implications are of these findings?

      Just randomly, though, I can think of one. Amazon just launched a phone, and Jeff Bezos touted his included headphones, which he claims are essentially tangle-proof. Thus, this research is of the sort that could help manufacturers understand, model, and build optimal wired headphones. Possibly better products that make our lives incrementally better – that’s a good thing.

      Headphone wires tangle. We all already know this. But you see (or perhaps don’t), it’s not just about whether they studied something obvious that we all knew, it’s about whether they came away with mathematical models, incremental knowledge, and the answers to some of the how, why, and how much? Being able to come out with an equation, and the key variables in the equation is useful, actionable knowledge, distributed for free to the world.

      Publicly funded research, man. It’s a beautiful thing. I’ll gladly pay my share of taxes for it. Sure beats wars in the middle east.

    • Anonymous

      I’m sorry, I forgot my violin. Cry me a river, that is just your arrogant opinion. If you don’t like what they are researching, too bad. To other people, it is an interesting topic and worth researching. Get over it.

    • Curious

      This is a valid view but perhaps not the most helpful.

      The inspiration for the multiplication of DNA sequences, one of the most important scientific discoveries in decades, came from Kary Mullis seeing the behaviour of stalks of plants while driving at night (Iconoclast by Gregory Berns). Focusing on “more pressing mysteries” while following the conventional scientific method is not as likely as this kind of inspiration to bring such breakthroughs.
      Topology was a playful invention and only later did it contribute to serious science and technology.

    • http://chymera.eu Horea Christian

      You clearly do not understand how basic research works and why it is useful. A few key concepts are: a) basic research improves understanding, not application b) studies like these are in fact extremely inexpensive, costing just the hourly wage of the researchers, which is sadly very little money c) what may seem like an “age-old” or “completely explained” issue to you, may turn out to be only very superficially clarified to someone who is more knowledgeable about the topic.

  • Ralphus

    Somebody ought to teach these “scientists” a thing or two that money don’t grow on trees! It’s always the smart folks who are the dumbest ones. Horsefeathers!

    • The_Xander_Crews

      Yeah… who needs scientists? We should just stop funding all of them. We’re fine right now. No need to discover anything or figure anything else out…ever.

      Read my post above. You are waaaaaay off base sir.

    • http://www.mikemorkes.com Mike Morkes

      And it’s always the short-sighted and uninspired folks who discourage out-of-the-box thinking or opening their minds to new concepts. I always love it when actual trained and educated experts/scientists get “dressed down” by people who base their opinion on educational material they learned in grade school or a quick search on Google.

    • bdbr

      I’m not sure what any of this has to do with money, unless you’re assuming this is paid research. It could just be someone’s masters thesis. It could be something they did on their own to satisfy their curiosity.

      Personally I think curiosity of any kind is a good thing, and should never be discouraged (and I’m an ‘old guy’, too).

    • Steve Killen

      Are you a troll?

  • Jon

    someone needs to make earphones out of the pocket hose material

    • Serawit

      You do know the pocket hose never gets back in the pocket once it is unraveled, right?

  • Bigg Russ

    I’ve been wondering about ‘cord tangle’ since the 80′s. I’m glad they figured this out before I died.

  • http://downunderhorsemanship.com/ Lisa

    This experiment may appear to be silly, but could lead to valuable information regarding similar issues with umbilical cords, medical tubing, wiring or tubing for mechanical use, etc.
    “I have no special talents,” Einstein declared. “I am only passionately curious.”

    • dotjean

      I agree. One of my twin grandsons had the cord wrapped around his neck at birth and it was a very serious and fast delivery to get him out before there was brain damage. He suffered a broken arm due to that very tangled cord!

    • John Schickler

      And most people mocked Da Vinci for his “crazy” ideas. A comment from his Wiki biography includes
      “He conceptualised flying machines, an armoured vehicle, concentrated solar power, an adding machine,[6] and the double hull, also outlining a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or were even feasible during his lifetime,[nb 2] but some of his smaller inventions, such as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire, entered the world of manufacturing unheralded.”

  • brad tittle

    The silly part of the problem is that the real starting point is the springiness of the wires. I am particular about how I coil ropes, wires and hoses. The “correct” way involves not storing energy in the coil. The energy you put into the coil when you wrap it is what causes the tangle. The mathematical oddity above does play a role, but it is tertiary…

  • Clive Durdle

    Sorry folks, this is critically important research. Why does DNA form a double helix, everyone miss the complexity lecture? No one heard of quipu?

  • joe3eagles

    As I read this article, I knew it would eventually be ridiculed by some humorless old fart who had no appreciation for research for research’s sake. I was amazed at the immediate realization of my prediction.

    • kelub

      Agree completely. Sometimes it’s a random, personal event that ignites a flicker of imagination which then cascades into a larger quandary and becomes an insufferable mental itch that must be scratched. Regardless of how they came about the idea to test the theory, there very well could be practical information provided in these types of tests.

      I too grow so tired of the pretentious, entitled “THIS IS HOW MY TAX MONEY IS BEING SPENT?!? AREN’T THERE BETTER THINGS TO DO?!?” responses. I’m in IT and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been taking a “mental break” from my “normal job” and tripped across something, some bit of information or idea, that then led to a larger thought and eventually became relevant to my job in some way – that’s how “outside the box” thinking occurs.

      Pretentious rabble-rousers and huff’n'puffers always remind me why I usually try to avoid every comment section on every site ever. Don’t YOU (the complainers, not “you” joe3eagles) have something better to be doing with YOUR time right now than reading this piece, much less commenting on it?

      • joe3eagles

        Yeah. I’m reminded of a TV commercial for some innovative company back in the 80s in which a skeletal old man was wagging his bony finger and complaining, “If man were meant to fly, he’d have wings!”

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Atwood

      I don’t understand why anyone would read a science blog if they didn’t understand that the driving force of science is curiosity.

      It’s all about “Why does this happen?” No matter what the “this” is, it’s almost always something that helps us unravel the mysteries of the universe.

      Or our earphones.

  • waitsmt

    evolution, mutation—when angry at spontanrous knotting i say mantra, without knots we wouldnt exist.

  • http://shareme.in/ Gavz

    seriously? does this even require scientific explanation, i guess an elementary student could simulate it inside their brain and conclude how earphones tangle, its like a common sense

    • Wil Post

      Entropy.

  • Billabob Johnson

    I disagree – you start with core macro elements – understand the physical behaviors and then move to molecular levels and glean understanding of how various kinetic energy inputs drive motion of molecules. Then you can form threads at a molecular level for developing self assembling, high performance materials.

  • http://fearlessflyer.com Michael Soriano

    go wireless

  • jay beacham

    Question: If unattended ropes, cords, strings tie themselves into knots, how come shoe laces untie themselves?

  • Mo Pacaldo

    Tell me this was a 5th graders science project and nothing else…

  • James The Chimp

    Robert Matthews of Aston University in England, one of the physicists working on the research described here, applies his work to the strands of DNA on our cells in order to develop a better understanding of how to keep human body cells healthy. Yes, it applies to headphones, too. And spaghetti for that matter. For headphones, I suppose I would care if it bothered me when they tangle or if I was trying to innovate a tangle-free headphone cord for profit; for the pasta, I don’t see it as an issue.
    If the article focused on the application to human health and DNA research, the result would be fewer uninformed rants. But civil discourse does not seem to be the norm here on these threads, just a sprinkling of it here and there, floating atop the morass of cliché and bile.

  • techrsr

    As much as I found the article interesting out of pure scientific curiosity, I’m sitting on the sidelines and enjoying the comment flame war now. Please keep it up.

  • Gerry Malone

    I wonder what would be yielded by applying this tangled theory to social media discussions. For instance, this thread got tangled in chords of agitation, not unlike a lot of social media discussions.

  • Kent Applegate

    I am not sure if this has been suggested and it is definitely low tech but…
    I read a few months ago if you task the ends of your head phones or other string thing and tie the ends together (preferably a square knot) you can eliminate tangles. It actually works in my experience.

  • flyfisher111

    In solving this monumental problem, they have apparently also discovered some corollary of chaos theory that can also explain why clothes hangers also tangle. Get to work guys!

  • David Church

    Wouldn’t the fact that each headphone cord contains several very thin wires twisted together have something to do with it? Similarly, string is composed of several threads twisted together.

    Those twisted wires and threads must some physical “memory” which contributes to the tangling.

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  • Carly Corday

    I want time-lapse video of the tangling actually occurring. Make that excruciatingly slow motion. So I can watch it happen.

  • Rukbat

    Most of the most important scientific discoveries come from idle thinking, like this experiment.

    Einstein didn’t set out to prove anything in 1905, he just wondered what would happen if 2 objects traveling at the speed of light were heading toward (or away from) each other. “I wonder” is what leads to most scientific advances. Directed experimentation leads only to technology using already-discovered scientific principles – discovered because someone wondered something.

  • KristinaMessilyv

    My Uncle
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    part-time off a home computer. try this R­e­x­1­0­.­C­O­M­

  • luke101

    I have to hang a 250′ , 3″ hose every day, and I also find the figure 8 pattern to virtually eliminate these situations, ……that is until it hits the ground!

  • John Raguso

    I have the same problem! My wife, however experienced the same thing in regard to her necklaces. She solved it admirably well by simply hanging the chains on a jewelry ‘tree’, a wooden hanger for necklaces that I suspect many wives use–because it prevents tangles!

  • j2saret

    its just that tangle is the default state of the universe: quantum, DNA, fishing line it all tangles at the slightest provocation

  • Phil Levin

    Orthodox Jewish women have known about this for thousands of years. Just imagine having a husband and a bunch of little boys who wear tsitsis (fringed garments) every day – and having to untangle the 4 fringes on each garment each time they come out of the washing machine!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Donald Huntington

    I’ve wondered about this for years. Still more dazzled than illuminated.

  • mariajlandreth

    my buddy’s sister makes $87 every hour on the internet
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  • OWilson

    There’s also this strange tendency for loose material to “catch” on doorknobs, hooks, nails, or any other protruding protuberance.

    But if you try to lasso the same object, it takes forever. Like trying to open a car door through a partially open window, or retrieve a fallen object like a key or a screw in the workshop. It refuses to “catch”.

  • brewster

    Nope. Gremlins.

  • Christa Davidson

    Very informative. Thank you for sharing I HATE having tangled headphone cords that why I was so ecstatic when I finally found some earbuds that don;t tangle because they are made like a zipper. Love that i can

  • Laila

    Interesting! That’s all….wow I was shocked at the amount of time and energy put into all the trolling and comments /. Don’t you people have anything else to do? It was an interesting article I always wondered how random knots appeared in things all my life!

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Seriously, Science?, formerly known as NCBI ROFL, is the brainchild of two prone-to-distraction biologists. We highlight the funniest, oddest, and just plain craziest research from the PubMed research database and beyond. Because nobody said serious science couldn't be silly!
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