Mathematicians and scientists are closing in on an understanding of tangles and knots. Why am I thinking about that?


Because I spent the weekend decorating the yard for Christmas. Lots of neighborhood Christmas lights were flipped on Thanksgiving night. But plenty of folks, including myself, spent the weekend putting up lights -- or, at least, trying to.

What a frustrating, irritating, seemingly impossible task it is to untangle a string -- or , worse yet, strings of lights--  that are snarled, tangled and knotted together!

For some, the only answer is to throw them away and start new.

That’s not the solution for me.  I look to science and math.

Mathematicians say, for example, that not every tangle in a string is a knot. And, just three basic moves - called Reidemeister moves - are needed to untangle an unknotted string.

That's encouraging.

However, three steps are not all that’s needed to undo a messed up light string. Recently, it was discovered that the number of Reidemeister moves that MAY be needed to undo a string that's a closed loop, is more than 2 to the power (100 billion times N), or way longer than the life of the universe.

Okay. Mathematics isn’t going to be the trick that’ll untangle my Christmas lights,but it does justify my Christmas-light frustration.

Do you have a knack for untangling lights? Do you know a way to get the snarls out,without pulling out hair, cussing like a sailor or giving up and tossing them in the trash?