Call it Murphy’s Law of knots: If something can get tangled up, it will. “Anything that’s long and flexible seems to somehow end up knotted,” says Andrew Belmonte, an applied mathematician at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Belmonte has plenty of alarming anecdotal evidence. “It certainly happens in my house, with the cords of the venetian blind.” But the knot scourge is a global one, as anyone who owns a desktop computer can confirm after peeking at the mess of connection cables and power cords behind the desk.
Now, scientists think they may have found out how and why things find their way into knotty arrangements. By tumbling a string of rope inside a box, biophysicists Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith have discovered that knots—even complex knots—form surprisingly fast and often. The string first coils up, and then its free ends swivel around the other coils, tracing a random path among them. That essentially makes the coils into a braid, producing knots, the scientists say.
The results’ relevance may go well beyond explaining the epidemic of tangled venetian blind cords. That’s because spontaneous knots seem to be prevalent in nature, especially in biological molecules. For example, knottiness may be crucial to the workings of certain proteins (see “Knots in Proteins”). And knots can randomly form in DNA, hampering duplication or gene expression—so much so that living cells deploy special knot-chopping enzymes.