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Ask Uncle John Anything: Tangled Up, Blue

November 10, 2014

Uncle John knows pretty much everything—and if he doesn’t, he heads his massive research library, or puts one of his many associates on the case. So go ahead: In the comments below, ask Uncle John anything. (And if we answer your question sometime, we’ll send you a free book!)

Why do cords tangle?How do cords get tangled up all on their own?

It’s the strangest phenomenon—you take out your earbuds, and being in too much of a rush to properly wind and tie them up, you throw them into a coat pocket. The next day, you go to retrieve them and find that the long cords—evidently independently of any external force—have gone and tangled, knotted, and bunched themselves up. The pocket was undisturbed, even; there wasn’t anything else in the pocket to throw a wrench in the works, as it were. How and why does this happen? (And why does this also happen to holiday lights in a box in the basement, a power cord under your desk…?)

Believe it or not, there’s a scientific discipline devoted to understanding why this happens, and it’s called knot theory. Brilliant minds in this (admittedly small) discipline have discovered with math that there is almost a 100 percent chance that something that can knot in storage will not in storage. That’s because for while there is only one way for a cord to be untangled, there are hundreds of ways for it to get tangled—there are countless types of knots, all just a little bit different than each other, and they can occur and combine with each other in just as many if not more ways.

Anyplace on the cord in which it can bend is called a contact point. The more contact points on a long cord, the more possibilities there are for the cord to bend and thus knot itself. But even the tiniest change in environment can cause those contact points to bend, move, and touch, ones you didn’t even think about. Say those headphones are in your coat pocket and you placed the coat gently over a chair. That little bit of motion is enough to make the cord bend. Walking with the coat on can make the cord move, and subsequently knot. Even slight temperature changes can wreak havoc.
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