Understanding unknotting shoelaces could hold the secrets to the universe

Shoelaces

The researchers say that there is still plenty of research to do in order to determine all the variables that contribute to the stability of a tied-up shoelace, especially under the pressures of running.

Your browser doesn't recognise available video formats. And that failure can happen in just a matter of seconds, triggered by forces that set off an unstoppable cascade.

It was found that the running foot exerts a force seven times greater when landing on the ground than the one exerted while standing, forcing the knot tying the laces to stretch and relax, loosening it slightly. This causes the knot to loosen, and when the swinging leg also applies inertial force on the ends of the shoelaces, it's only a matter of time that the knot becomes untied.

The breakthrough goes beyond explaining a seemingly obvious problem, providing a better understanding of how knotted structures, even including DNA, fall apart.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, filmed a volunteer in slow-motion on a treadmill to work out exactly when her laces suffered what they termed a "catastrophic failure" (yep, this is serious stuff).

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When your shoelaces comes untied, the thought that probably pops in your brain is: "Ugh, that's annoying".

But for a group of mechanical engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, the spontaneous unraveling of shoelaces is a scientific puzzle - one so commonplace that many would not even think it worth examining with the kind of disciplined, scientific rigor usually reserved for more arcane physical phenomena.

The reason why certain patterns of knots are stronger than others and can remain in place for longer is the essential take-home lesson from all this.

"The forces that cause this are not from a person pulling on the free end, but from the inertial forces of the leg swinging back and forth while the knot is loosened from the shoe repeatedly striking the ground".

Oliver O'Reilly at the University of California, Berkeley, chose to study spontaneous unknotting after noticing that his young daughter could never keep her shoelaces tied.

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The scientists looked at two types of knots. Testing different varieties of the typical bow knot in both the weak and strong configurations.

The findings also revealed what knot experts, such as sailors and surgeons, have long suggested: that the granny knot many of us use to tie our laces comes undone far quicker than an alternative method that is no more complex. Both eventually fail though, and to find out why, the researchers conducted several experiments testing the knots.

Walking was key. The same knot that failed within 15 meters of walking stuck around if participants just stomped their feet on the ground or swung them while sitting on a table, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

"We were able to show the weak knot will always fail and the strong knot will fail at a certain time scale, but we still do not understand why there is a fundamental mechanical difference between those two knots". In a square knot, you start by crossing the lace in your right hand in front of the one in your left hand and then threading it under the left one. They found the knot's failure intensifies over time. Rest easy though, because the biggest mystery of all has finally been put to bed: we now know why shoelaces always end up becoming untied. More research needs to be carried out to understand all the variables involved, they said.

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