Sunday, November 3, 2013

How Wires Get Tangled in your pocket?

How Wires Get Tangled in your pocket
Tangling up of Earphones

I’m sure the “tangling up of earphones” must have made it to your “the most intolerably irritating things in the world” list very easily. We keep our earphones in our bags, pockets, etc. always to find them all tangled up when checked upon later. And this leaves us with the question: Why does this happen? It seems that the problem of tangled wires is so well-established across the globe, that it has even spawned a competitive sport known as Speedcabling. Each game consists of a race against an opponent to swiftly separate cables from a purpose-made bundle, with the first person to liberate all of the tangled cables being declared the winner.

As much as it may surprise you, there is a whole mathematical discipline, which they call “the knot theory” which deals with the issue of the types of knots that get formed in storage. Studies have identified more than a 100 types of knots that happen in your pocket. In over 3400 different trials (Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string, Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith), it was found that the probability of knot formations in earphones kept in the pocket is sky-high and each time a new type of knot is formed. It’s not very probable that you would come across the same type of knot twice.

Why do wires get tangled up?
However much we'd like to believe that some creature leaps into your pockets to tamper with your wires when you're not looking, sadly, we know that's not really the case. It seems that round-bodied cables all suffer from the tangling problem thanks to their aerodynamics and friction control (or lack thereof) making the cords rotate and tangle. In theory, that means that flat cables should be less susceptible to getting knotted up. This was further researched and experimented upon by physicists Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith who explained the formation of knots when rotated in a box in their paper “Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string” which won them an Ignobel Prize in 2008. They found knot formations in DNA and umbilical cords, intriguing, and this can be related to our earphone dilemma. The same is what happens to the Christmas lights and other wires and cables.

How Wires Get Tangled in your pocket
How Wires Get Tangled in your pocket
Raymer, in his experiment, identified a number of factors that lead to entanglement, the length of the cord being the first. Cords that are 46cm or more in length are more prone to entanglement, so using earphones with shorter wire lengths might help but obviously, that would be funny. Also, cords made up of flexible materials are more entanglement-prone, reason being, lack of friction control. Flat cables could prove to be a solution. Other than this, the rotation rate, i.e., how tumbled the cords are, and the number of rotations, also increase the probability of knot formations. Instead of just dumping the earphones in bags and pockets, it would be helpful if we get a pouch of their own.
It may have occurred to you that the weight of the ear buds plays the villains in the scene. It is, indeed, true as it can be. The three lengthy strands and the weight of the ear buds do make our earphones more entanglement-prone. So no matter what we do, they are just going to end up tangled.

Scientific research
Unsurprisingly, there are only a handful of scientific researchers that have taken the time to test this one out in a lab. An article on outlines research by two physicists where they dropped pieces of string of varying lengths into a box which they then rotated. They found that knots were more likely to form as the length of the string increased (although the likelihood leveled out once it reached 5 feet) and that knots were more likely to form in larger boxes. So, presumably one way to reduce the tangle factor is to buy headphones with shorter cable and carry them around within smaller sections of our bags or, of course, better still, a small pouch of their own. The best defense, according to the scientists, is that we should take a tip from sailors, cowboys and electricians who all keep cord, string or cable tied in a coil so that it can't move. More common sense, really.

The Verdict
If your wires have room to move, then they will. So, the bottom line is to stop them doing that. Tie them up or if you really can't be bothered, keep them in as small as a compartment in your bag as possible. If you want to impress your friends and save a little cash, the under and over method is where it's at. Otherwise you might want to pick up a cable tie. If none of this sounds viable, then it's probably time to invest in some wireless headphones.


  1. My new wireless headphones is in my favourite colours blue and a solid red which is ultra small to give ultimate comfort to my ears!

  2. Good post and researched. I used to wonder why the wires get tangled, now I have the answer.
    Best headphones