The Future Is Here

A mathematical bug shows us why the 3D universe leads to Murphy's Law

This really is the week for mathematical bugs. First, one beetle showed us why we live in a universe of despair. Now, another shows us that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong...and the more that things can go wrong, the more things will go wrong. See how a bug proves a knotty conjecture.

Welcome to December, the season of Christmas lights. If you annually deck your halls, chances are your lights are tangled in a hideous knobby green wad at the bottom of a box somewhere. They were probably in an organized loop when you put them there. But now, they look like the Christmas Cat coughed up a hairball. Why do they do that?

Because they're subject to Murphy's Law, an informal law that says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. When it comes to long strands of string, from proteins in a person's cells to the rigging in a ship, this means spontaneous knotting. People have written papers about how string knots up the minute it's given a chance to jiggle around. In 1988, two mathematicians — De Witt Sumners and Stuart Whittington — informally proved that knotting had to occur under these circumstances, and they did it using the mathematician's favorite creature, the random-walk-taking bug.