Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Tangled cables – they really do 'just happen'

Science News reports: [edited]

Call it Murphy's Law of knots: If something can get tangled up, it will. "Anything that's long and flexible seems to somehow end up knotted," says Andrew Belmonte, an applied mathematician at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Belmonte has plenty of alarming anecdotal evidence. "It certainly happens in my house, with the cords of the venetian blind."

But the knot scourge is a global one, as anyone who owns a desktop computer can confirm after peeking at the mess of connection cables and power cords behind the desk.

Now, scientists think they may have found out how and why things find their way into knotty arrangements. By tumbling a string of rope inside a box, biophysicists Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith have discovered that knots — even complex knots — form surprisingly fast and often. The string first coils up, and then its free ends swivel around the other coils, tracing a random path among them. That essentially makes the coils into a braid, producing knots, the scientists say.

Raymer's interest in knots began as an answer waiting for a question. Two years ago, he was an undergraduate student working in Smith's lab at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Raymer fancied taking a class about the abstract theory of knots, offered by UCSD's math department. Smith told him that he should take it only if he could find a practical use for it — some kind of knot experiment.

Raymer never took the class, but he and Smith did come up with a simple idea for an experiment. They put a string in a cubic container the size of a box of tissue. By tumbling the box 10 times "like a laundry dryer," as Raymer puts it, the researchers hoped to observe knots forming spontaneously on occasion. They didn't have to wait for long: Knots formed right away.

No comments: