The Humble Beginnings of 5 Big Ideas

Where we see tangled headphones, annoying insects, and painful bandages, these scientists saw the beginnings of world-changing medical advances.

From Mental Floss
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine November 2013

Close-up of tangled headphones

Dan Saelinger/Trunk Archive

TANGLED HEADPHONES…might stamp out infections.

Ever pull your iPod out of your pocket only to find your earbuds hopelessly knotted? Every time physicist Robert Matthews of England’s Aston University examines a tangled cord, it reminds him of something smaller—and more important. “Despite its apparently trivial nature, spontaneous knotting is of great significance in polymer chemistry and molecular biology,” he says.

For instance, each cell in our bodies contains about six feet of DNA. If those genetic cords tangle, the results can be devastating to the cell’s health. Matthews became entangled in all of this when he unknotted a cord for the umpteenth time and recalled a mathematical proof published in the late 1980s that showed that the risk of knots grows rapidly with the length of cord. If the two ends were joined in a loop, Matthews realized, it would shorten the length of the cord and eliminate the free ends, whose movement leads to knots in the first place.

In 2010, to test his “loop conjecture,” Matthews embarked on the Great British Knot Experiment, enlisting kids to put pieces of strings—some of which were looped (with ends clipped together to form a tiny circle), others unlooped—in boxes, jumble them around, and report the results. Matthews found that looped string formed knots one tenth as often as unlooped string of the same length. Uniting the ends of your earbud cables—with, say, a hair rubber band—will keep knotting to a minimum.

A godsend for anyone who has ever battled tangled Christmas lights, Matthews’s discovery may have a much bigger impact. If pharmacologists can influence the formation of microscopic loops in DNA and viruses, a breakthrough in fighting cancer and infections could follow. In the meantime, start using a hair thingy and say hello to blessedly tangle-free headphones. —Judy Dutton

Dan Saelinger/Trunk Archive

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