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Scientist Untangles Mystery of Jumbled Headphones

A physicist may have solved string theory. No, not that string theory.

Robert Matthews, a visiting scientist at Aston University in Birmingham, England, has developed a mathematical theory that explains why headphones invariably tangle up into hopeless knots. It's called the "Murphy's Law of String" or the "Loop Conjecture," and it's a phenomenon that has driven headphone users bonkers since before the Walkman was popular.

Matthews' years of study suggest that clipping the two earbuds together, then attaching them to the end near the audio jack to form a loop, will cause a tenfold reduction in knot formation.

"First, by forming the loop you've effectively reduced the length of string able to explore the 3D space by 50 per cent, which makes a big difference." Matthews said. "Second, you've also eliminated the two ends, which are the prime movers of knot formation."

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To test his theory, Matthews invited schools across England to participate in "the Great British Knot Experiment." Participants compared different types of knots to determine which are the easiest to unravel. One school picked away at over 12,000 jumbled strings to provide data for Matthews' predictions, he said.

Matthews, who has also studied why toast wants to fall butter side down, said he's particularly satisfied that he was able to tie up the loose ends on headphone tangles.

"I hope it saves people a lot of grief," he said.

He added that tangles are no trivial question for science. His work may help cast light on why DNA sometimes forms knotty mutations, and how knot formations in cancer cells can be undone with targeted drugs.

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