Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Bootlace that knots by itself!

Can a bootlace tie itself in knots? My answer would have been 'no', until it happened to me recently. You hear about impossible physical things happening sometimes, in poltergeist cases for instance. So was it a paranormal event?

First of all, the knot did not appear completely spontaneously. But, on the other hand, neither was it the result of any obvious knot-tying action. I moved my hand along the lace quickly, to remove it from an obstruction where it had been caught. It produced a sort of whipping action in the lace. Then I noticed, to my astonishment, a knot had appeared on the very end of the lace. The aglet (that plastic sleeve at the end) had managed to get itself between two folds of the lace, forming a simple knot. And just to prove it was a knot, and not simply a chance fold, I undid it (which I needed to do anyway because it was stopping me tying my laces). It was definitely a knot!

We've all had the experience where a long cable, or piece of string, spontaneously ties itself in knots simply by being used multiple times and stored in a pile, rather than being wound properly. It happens because each time we pick up the string we inadvertently rotate it a bit. This twisting causes the string to wrap itself. Given the right sequence of twists, the string forms coils and then simple knots. Indeed, experiments have shown that knots readily form spontaneously in agitated strings. However, not usually with just one single movement, as happened in this case.

Some twisting must have happened with the bootlace. However, I think the presence of the aglet was crucial because, unlike the rest of the string, it was stiff and unbending. I think it collided with the lace, possibly twice, to produce a loop and then a knot (which also includes the lace crossing itself). I don't think the knot could have appeared without the aglet. If I had a lot of time, I think I could work out the exact sequence of moves that could make a whip action produce a knot. But life's too short! I know it's possible because it happened. I also know it's incredibly unlikely. I'm pretty sure I could repeat that action a thousand times and it would not happen again.

If only I could find the exact action I used to knot the bootlace, maybe I could invent self-tying boots! But WDTHDWP? Well, incredibly unlikely things are sometimes reported as paranormal. But high odds against something happening don't mean it is impossible, nor that it must be paranormal (see coincidence). Instead, just like my knotted bootlaces, they just happen very rarely.

PS: I was searching for a photo of a boot to illustrate this article but I'm pretty sure you've all seen one already. Instead, let me share with you my strange ambition to become the manager of an outdoors shop for one day in January. I've always wanted to put up a sign in the window saying 'this is the winter of our discount tent'. On second thoughts, perhaps the boot photo was a better idea ...

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