Untangling the mystery of knotted flex

Great British Knot experiment
Great British Knot experiment

7th June 2010 

Mass experiment to investigate one of the banes of everyday life

We all know the problem: given half a chance, headphone cords, electric flex and the like will tie themselves into a hopelessly tangled knot. How do they do it – and what can we do to prevent it?

Today sees the launch of the first-ever mass experiment aimed at untangling the science behind this annoying everyday phenomenon.

Schools from around the country are being invited to take part in The Great British Knot Experiment, collecting data that an Aston University scientist believes could lead to a simple remedy to the problem – and possibly much more.

Over the years, a host of methods have been put forward for preventing tangling, from carefully coiling rope to the use of special reels and anti-knotting gadgets. 

Robert Matthews, Visiting Reader in Science at Aston, has developed a mathematical theory which suggests the risk of knots forming can be dramatically reduced much more easily - and without any gizmos. According to the “Loop Conjecture”, all that’s required is that the loose ends of cord, flex etc be clipped together, forming a simple loop. Rough estimates based on the mathematics of so-called “Self Avoiding Walks” suggest looping could produce up to a ten-fold reduction in the risk of knots forming in headphone flex.

Those taking part in The Great British Knot Experiment will compare the risk of getting knots in both open-ended and looped cord, to see if they follow the formulas underpinning the “Loop Conjecture”. Participants will also be able to go further, looking at the effect of cord thickness, rigidity and other parameters likely to affect knotting risk.

“The results will do more than help understand this everyday problem, though”, says Matthews. “Despite its apparently trivial nature, the phenomenon of spontaneous knotting is of great significance in other areas, including polymer chemistry and molecular biology”. 

Matthews points out that there is over a metre of DNA crammed into every one of our cells – and any knots dramatically increase the risk of genetic malfunction.

 “DNA uses special enzymes to cut knots out of itself to combat this problem”, says Matthews.

“But there’s some evidence that DNA may exploit loop-like structures for the same reason. The Great British Knot Experiment may help cast light on this”. 

Matthews adds that there may even be medical spin-offs from the research. “Some anti-cancer drugs work by affecting knot formation in cancerous cells, so it’s possible that the Loop Conjecture may lead to new approaches to drug design.”

Schools interested in taking part in the Great British Knot experiment can log onto www.thegreatbritishknotexperiment.net  or contact Vicky Bond on 0121 204 3652 at Aston University or  v.j.bond@aston.ac.uk


 Notes for Editors

  • The Great British Knot Experiment website, containing much more detail, can be found at www.thegreatbritishknotexperiment.net
  • Watch the experiment on YouTube

  • The results will be unveiled at the British Science Festival on Sunday 14 September; please contact us if you want an embargoed copy of the results before that date.
  •  Robert Matthews is available for interview on 0790 651 9126