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October 3, 2008

String theory

People like to make a big deal about all of the U of C's Nobel Laureates, which is fine I guess, if you care about stuff like the discovery of the double helix. But, like all those undecided voters in Ohio, I'm far more concerned about research that affects me, Joe Six-Pack.For instance, is there a reason why my iPod headphones always get tangled up into knots, even if they're just sitting in my backpack? Well, thanks to Dorian M. Raymer of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Douglas E. Smith of the University of California at San Diego, we have our answer: Yes. In the groundbreaking report, "Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String," they found the answer as such:

Based on the observation that long, stiff strings tend to form a coiled structure when confined, we propose a simple model to describe the knot formation based on random “braid moves” of the string end. Our model can qualitatively account for the observed distribution of knots and dependence on agitation time and string length.
Terrific. All of this, of course, was enough to win Mr. Raymer and Mr. Smith a vaunted Ig Nobel Prize for Physics. More importantly, however, it provided the University of Chicago with its sole contribution to this year's honorees: their study was edited by our our own Leo P. Kadanoff. So congratulations, Professor.