Listening to podcasts has transformed the time I spend washing dishes, exercising, and watching my daughter play in the schoolyard. But why do my earphones get tangled so easily?

Entropy

In the Ontario Science Centre podcast, the Redshift report (episode 32), they explained that the entanglement was an example of entropy in statistical mechanics, that there are way more ways you don't want something than you do. If you wrap up or clip your cord, you are adding energy to make the system more orderly. But this is too much trouble for me and it seems like it could damage the wiring inside more easily.

Knotty is Knice

Enter Dorian Raymer, an undergrad at the University of California San Diego who was curious about the mathematics of knots and a biophysics professor named Doug Smith who suggested Raymer take an experimental approach to the question. They won an Ignobel Prize for their study on how knots form when you put a cord in a spinning box or as they called it, "Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string."

In Raymer's sometimes awkward talk on the paper, he mentions factors affecting the chance of forming a knot in a cord bouncing around in a box. They were interested in questions like knot formation in DNA and umbilical cords, but the results have clear application to understanding the earphone phenomenon. Having three strands in the earphone system and weight of the ear buds at the ends could further increase the odds of entanglement.

Length

The cord had to be at least 46 centimeters to form a knot. This must be why you never get knots in spaghetti. And if you had some way have using shorter earphone cables, it could reduce the chance of knots.

Flexibility

More flexible materials are more prone to having knots. So if you could make the earphone cables stiffer, you could reduce the chance of knots. One product I came across does this by adding springs onto the branch cables.

Rotation Rate

The more they get tumbled, the better chance they have of getting tangled. This made me realize that it might be better to keep the earphones in my breast pocket instead of my pants pocket.

Number of Rotations

The more rotations, the higher probability of getting a knot. So if you leave your earphones jostling around for longer, the more likely they will get tangled.

Box Size

A bigger box resulted in more knots. So if you leave your earphones in a smaller pocket instead of a big bag, you might have a better chance of not getting knotted.

Raymer ran over 3000 tests. If you add your observations of earphone behaviours in the comments, we could test these parameters. Or, if you are more motivated by money than pure knowledge, people are starting to sell various solutions and analyzing these parameters might help you invent the next big thing.

Survivors

Artist: Jeff Kulak

Jeff is a senior graphic designer at Science World. His illustration work has been published in the Walrus, The National Post, Reader’s Digest and Chickadee Magazine. He loves to make music, ride bikes, and spend time in the forest.

Egg BB

Artist: Jeff Kulak

Jeff is a senior graphic designer at Science World. His illustration work has been published in the Walrus, The National Post, Reader’s Digest and Chickadee Magazine. He loves to make music, ride bikes, and spend time in the forest.

Comet Crisp

Artist: Jeff Kulak

Jeff is a senior graphic designer at Science World. His illustration work has been published in the Walrus, The National Post, Reader’s Digest and Chickadee Magazine. He loves to make music, ride bikes, and spend time in the forest.

T-Rex and Baby

Artist: Michelle Yong

Michelle is a designer with a focus on creating joyful digital experiences! She enjoys exploring the potential forms that an idea can express itself in and helping then take shape.

Buddy the T-Rex

Artist: Michelle Yong

Michelle is a designer with a focus on creating joyful digital experiences! She enjoys exploring the potential forms that an idea can express itself in and helping then take shape.

Geodessy

Artist: Michelle Yong

Michelle is a designer with a focus on creating joyful digital experiences! She enjoys exploring the potential forms that an idea can express itself in and helping then take shape.

Science Buddies

Artist: Ty Dale

From Canada, Ty was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1993. From his chaotic workspace he draws in several different illustrative styles with thick outlines, bold colours and quirky-child like drawings. Ty distils the world around him into its basic geometry, prompting us to look at the mundane in a different way.

Western Dinosaur

Artist: Ty Dale

From Canada, Ty was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1993. From his chaotic workspace he draws in several different illustrative styles with thick outlines, bold colours and quirky-child like drawings. Ty distils the world around him into its basic geometry, prompting us to look at the mundane in a different way.