You stuff your headphones into your pocket, take them out half an hour later and curse as you try to untie a knot that looks like it was impossible to have formed on its own, like you have tiny knot-tying elves in your pockets trying to screw with you.
It’s the same with your computer cables, and the Christmas lights in your attic, and your garden hose. In fact, everything in your home that is capable of twisting into a knot seems to be involved in a giant conspiracy against your sanity. And it always pisses you off, because there’s no reason for it — why would a bunch of wire that was in a nice loop when you stored it suddenly be a tangled mess later?
Don’t think that science has just been asleep at the wheel on this one; there is an entire mathematical discipline that specializes in how seemingly random tangles form. Knot theory is in fact one of the more popular pastimes among the mathematically well-endowed, and it focuses entirely on the “How the hell do things get tangled?” dilemma.
And here’s what they have found out: It is a near-mathematical certainty that a wire/string/hose/etc. of any length will knot in storage. To put it simply (and it gets infinitely complicated), there is only one way for a cable to be straight, but a massive number of ways it can get tangled. Scientists have found literally hundreds of separate, unique types of individual knot, or “prime knots,” and they can be combined in infinite ways. You could go your whole life and never see the same knot twice.
So any time you have a bunch of long, flexible objects (or, in the garden hose scenario, one really long object in multiple loops), the objects link in a number of places. When there’s enough contact points, and the objects are long and slim enough, the chances for these objects not getting into one of those trillions of knot states is downright astronomical. The more contact points, the more possible knotted states.
So even a little motion — jostling the box of Christmas lights when you move it, a change in temperature causing your garden hose to shrink a tiny bit — makes those states catastrophically accumulate, often within seconds. Put the headphones in your backpack, walk across campus, boom: You have descended into knot hell.