The ins and outs of ty­ing shoelaces

Montreal Gazette - - NEWS - JOSH FREED josh­[email protected]

I rushed in to buy some milk at a late-night Ha­sidic su­per­mar­ket on Parc Ave. re­cently — and sud­denly felt my two win­ter boots lock to­gether in mid-stride. Next thing I knew I was top­pling over like a tree, then smash­ing heav­ily onto the busy store floor. Ortho­dox men dressed in black scat­tered like bowl­ing pins as I rolled over and over on the ground, try­ing not to kill my­self, or any­one else. The owner rushed over and helped me to a chair, where he kindly of­fered some Band-Aids for my banged-up body. But I left the su­per­mar­ket with my pride wounded more than the rest of me. It turned out one of my boot laces had come un­done and snagged it­self on a hook on the other boot, and sud­denly: Ti­i­i­im­ber! What both­ered me is I’d knot­ted my laces fairly tightly that morn­ing, though ob­vi­ously not well enough. I left the store pos­ing an an­cient philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion: Why do shoelaces come un­done? No mat­ter how tight you tug, they’re often doomed to undo. Be­fore you laugh, I’m far from alone in hav­ing loose laces. If you watch NBA bas­ket­ball on TV, you’ll see the world’s best bas­ket­ball player, LeBron James, is for­ever stop­ping to retie his free-flap­ping shoe­strings. Some of my sports pals think it’s a tac­tic he uses to get a breather, but there are var­i­ous video sites show­ing close-ups of LeBron’s un­done sneak­ers with ti­tles like: “LeBron doesn’t know how to tie his shoelaces.” It’s the same for the game’s sec­ond best player, Kevin Du­rant, whose laces come un­done so fre­quently he often loses a shoe mid-game. The world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, once won the Olympic 100 me­tres even though his laces came un­tied well be­fore the fin­ish line. If any­one should be able to keep their shoe­strings tied, you’d think it would be the world’s elite ath­letes. But they have the same prob­lem as many of us — and it’s hardly new. Shoelaces have been around for 5,000 years and they’ve been com­ing loose ever since. They started as thin strips of twine, then leather that was for­ever caus­ing trou­ble. For in­stance, in 44 BC, as as­sas­sins sur­rounded Julius Cae­sar, he tried to rise and run — but I be­lieve he slipped on a shoelace, which even­tu­ally led to the fall of the Ro­man Em­pire. I jest, but at least some­one is tak­ing this whole knotty sub­ject se­ri­ously. In 2017, sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia in­ves­ti­gated this im­por­tant mat­ter in a re­port pub­lished in the Au­gust Pro­ceed­ings of the Royal So­ci­ety of Lon­don. In an ex­per­i­ment, they focused a close-up cam­era on peo­ple as they ran or walked on a tread­mill. Then they stud­ied the knots in su­per-slow mo­tion to see ex­actly how — and how quickly — they un­rav­elled. Their con­clu­sion: the stan­dard dou­ble bow “granny knot” most of us learned in grade school al­ways came un­done in less than 15 min­utes of stren­u­ous walk­ing or run­ning (which is why hard-run­ning pro­fes­sional ath­letes are al­ways re-lac­ing). You can stand around a bus stop, or even shovel snow with­out loos­en­ing your laces much. But sci­en­tists found walk­ing and run­ning both pro­duce “un­ex­pect­edly pow­er­ful forces, stronger than the most pow­er­ful roller-coaster in the world” that pum­mel the shoelaces’ knot like a hur­ri­cane ev­ery step we take. Even­tu­ally the knot starts to loosen, then the lace ends start to flap like a he­li­copter, faster and faster — un­til POW! — even the best knot sud­denly un­rav­els. Of course, that usu­ally hap­pens at the worst pos­si­ble mo­ment, when you’re chas­ing af­ter a bus, or car­ry­ing five gro­cery bags while walk­ing your dog. Or run­ning into a crowded Parc Ave. su­per­mar­ket for milk late at night. The sci­en­tists also con­cluded that some knots hold out longer than oth­ers. While the basic granny knot kids have learned for mil­len­nia comes un­done in min­utes, a stronger square knot usu­ally lasts longer, some­times as much as a day of walk­ing. That’s why the in­ter­net is filled with sites on “the cor­rect way to tie your laces.” There’s even a TED talk called “How To Tie Your Shoes” by a man who re­learned in his late 50s. Sadly, sci­en­tists didn’t test the “dou­ble knot” most of us also learned in school, where you make a sec­ond knot on top of the first, then pull it tight with all your might. But frankly that’s hard to read­just. When I’m play­ing ten­nis and need to tighten my laces, I some­times have to take off my shoe and use my teeth to undo a dou­ble knot, while ev­ery­one waits and stares. Mean­while, sci­en­tists say many mys­ter­ies re­main about the physics of knots and why some are stronger than oth­ers, so they plan more stud­ies into shoe­string the­ory. But un­til sci­ence solves this puz­zle, ev­ery­one bet­ter take Knot Re-ed­u­ca­tion 303 — or else be like LeBron and me and re­mem­ber to keep re­ty­ing their shoes. I kid you knot.

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