Thu, Apr 13, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Scientists unravel the mystery of the loose shoelace

The Guardian

Caroline Wozniacki ties her shoelace during a WTA Tour tennis match against Kim Clijsters at the Khalifa International Tennis Complex in Doha on Oct. 31, 2010.

Photo: AFP

Things can start to unravel at any moment, but when failure occurs it is swift and catastrophic.

That is the conclusion of a scientific investigation into what might be described as the Sod’s law of shoelaces.

The study focused on the mysterious phenomenon by which a shoe is neatly and securely tied one moment, and the next a flapping lace is threatening to trip you up — possibly as you are running for the bus or striding with professional purpose across your open-plan office.

In a series of experiments involving a human runner on a treadmill and a mechanical leg designed to swing and stomp, the scientists revealed that shoelace knot failure happens in a matter of seconds, triggered by a complex interaction of forces.

“It’s unpredictable, but when it happens it’s in two or three strides and it’s catastrophic. There’s no way of coming back from it,” said Oliver O’Reilly, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and the study’s senior author.

The study found that the stomping of the foot gradually loosens the knot, while the whipping forces produced by the swing of the foot act like hands tugging on the ends of the laces. As the tension in the knot eases and the free ends start to slide, a runaway effect takes hold and the knot suddenly unravels.

The findings also revealed what knot experts, such as sailors and surgeons, have long suggested: that the granny knot many of us use to tie our laces comes undone far quicker than an alternative method that is no more complex.

“It’s provided hard scientific backing for what many people have long suspected: that the traditional way of tying shoelaces is pretty rubbish,” said Robert Matthews, a physicist at Aston University in Birmingham, England, who was not involved in the study.

O’Reilly said he was inspired to investigate after spending decades pondering why laces spontaneously unknot themselves — an intellectual niggle that intensified when he came to teach his daughter how to tie her laces.

The scientist enlisted a pair of graduate students and initial tests revealed that sitting on a chair and swinging your leg or stamping your foot does not generally cause a knot to come undone. It appeared to be a combination of both motions that conspired to unravel laces.

The scientists then captured slow-motion video of a runner on a treadmill.

They found that the foot strikes the ground at seven times the force of gravity and as the fabric of the shoe squashes down on impact, extra lace is freed at the top of the shoe, causing the knot to loosen slightly with each stride. Meanwhile, the swinging leg causes the lace’s free ends to whip back and forth tugging them outward.

As the knot loosens, the friction holding the knot tight decreases and as the free ends lengthen, the whipping force goes up, leading to an avalanche effect.

“The interesting thing about this mechanism is that your laces can be fine for a really long time and it’s not until you get one little bit of motion to cause loosening that starts this avalanche effect leading to knot failure,” said Christine Gregg, a graduate student and a coauthor.

The scientists tested two versions of the knot and bow: the square knot and the granny knot.

In a square knot, you start by crossing the lace in your right hand in front of the one in your left hand and then threading it under the left one. For the bow you repeat the process, but crossing the end that is now in your right hand behind the one in your left (with added loops to make the bow).

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