How Untangling Headphones Could Stop Epidemics

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Ever pull your iPod out of your pocket only to find your earbuds hopelessly knotted? Physicist Robert Matthews of England’s Aston University has, and he gets as irked as anyone. But every time he examines a tangled cord, it reminds him of something smaller—and more important. “Despite its apparently trivial nature, spontaneous knotting is of great significance in polymer chemistry and molecular biology,” he says.

For instance, each cell in our bodies contains more than three feet of DNA. If those genetic cords tangle, the results can be devastating to the cell’s health. In studying the strands, Matthews found that Mother Nature has a clever solution for keeping them straight: Strings of DNA end in a loop, and loops can’t easily form knots. Naturally, Matthews wondered whether a similar loop solution might also work for everyday cords.

The Loop Conjecture

In 2010, Matthews embarked on the Great British Knot Experiment, enlisting kids in eight schools to put string—some of which was looped (with each end clipped together to form a tiny circle), others unlooped—in boxes, jumble them around, and then report the results. Matthews found that looped string formed knots one tenth as often as unlooped string of the same length. In other words, uniting the ends of your earbud cables—with, say, a paper clip—will keep knotting to a minimum.

This finding is a godsend for anyone who has ever battled tangled Christmas lights or struggled with knotty necklaces. But Matthews’s discovery may have a much bigger impact. If pharmacologists are able to control microscopic loops in DNA and viruses, a breakthrough in fighting cancer and other maladies, like infections, could follow. In the meantime, pick up a paper clip and slip on your blessedly tangle-free headphones.

This story originally appeared in the Think Small issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue here!