We’ve all been through it: we want to listen to some music, take our earbuds out of our bag only to find—THE HORROR!—an impossibly tangled mess.

Can’t anyone assuage this terrible scourge? According to physics… nope, not really.

As it turns out, earbuds tangle up because of a simple but deep reason. Namely, there are  precious few ways for a chord to register as “tidy”, but a bajillion different ones to be “tangled”. Though each is relatively unlikely to form, we don’t really care which specific sequence of knots formed, all we know is that now we need to go untangle them.



When we fold the earbuds in our pocket and go about our business, the chord starts shuffling around. In a way, it’s as if it “chose” a random shape to take, among the multitude it possibly could take. As tangled shapes are overwhelmingly more than the untangled ones, the chord will almost certainly end up tangled.

In 2007, two American physicists even experimented on this problem, and rigorously verified how likely it was to form various knots (which, by the way, also has to do with how DNA knots in our cells). They found that, in general, the longer and more flexible the chord is, the more likely it is that it forms knots (they even predicted which knots were more or less likely to form).

It’s no coincidence that all lifehacks to solve the tangle basically try to limit these factors, for example make the chord shorter by spooling it around something. Keep in mind, earbud chords are the worst: long, soft, they even fork at the end, tripling* the chance of knotting.

It may look mundane, but tangled earbuds are actually a manifestation of the universal increase of entropy. Among other things, this famous principle is also known as “everything spontaneously tends to disorder” and prohibits perpetual motion. Not bad for a ten-bucks piece of wire.



Tangled earbuds are just in the annoying fringe of a bunch of effects, from why a bowl of hot soup cools down, to why our books inexorably mix up, no matter how orderly we put them, to even why we smell flowers in a meadow. All, in very different ways, expressions of the increase of entropy. And we didn’t go into the really angst-inducing stuff, like why time flows in one specific direction!

So no, we cannot solve this problem any more than we can freeze time. But at least we can go around it with a few bucks worth of gadgets… or wait for Apple to eradicate it (for a lot more).


Cover photo: twisty (240/365), CC-BY Tim Pierce via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

*Think about it: the chances triple, not double.

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