Knot theorem could have implications for DNA as well as tangled flex

Posted by Emma Woollacott

A mass experiment begins today to test a possible solution to one of life's recurring problems: the way headphone cords, electrical cables and the like get themselves into a tangled knot the minute your back is turned.

Aston University visiting reader in science Robert Matthews believes his 'Loop Conjecture' can prevent knots in everything from climbing ropes to DNA.

All you need to do, says Matthews, is clip the loose ends of cord  together to form a simple loop. His estimates - based on the math of intriguingly-named 'Self Avoiding Walks' - suggest this could cut the risk of knots in headphone flex by up to ten times.

We at TGD pass this information on to our readers on the assumption that if this is news to Dr Matthews, it may be news to you too. However, a quick straw poll of female acquaintances reveals that every one of them clips a necklace back into a loop before putting it away for precisely this reason.

Anyway, schools across the UK are now comparing the risk of getting knots in both open-ended and looped cord, to see if they follow Matthews' formulae. They'll also look at whether cord thickness and rigidity affect the  knotting risk.

But the research may do a little more than state the bleeding obvious.

"Despite its apparently trivial nature, the phenomenon of spontaneous knotting is of great significance in other areas, including polymer chemistry and molecular biology," says Matthews.

He 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," he says. "But there’s some evidence that DNA may exploit loop-like structures for the same reason."