Joanne Palmer: Tying the Christmas lights knot |

Joanne Palmer: Tying the Christmas lights knot

Joanne Palmer

In 1989, Joanne Palmer left a publishing career in Manhattan and has missed her paycheck ever since. She is a mom, weekly columnist for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, and the owner of a property management company, The House Nanny. Her new book "Life in the 'Boat: How I fell on Warren Miller's skis, cheated on my hairdresser and fought off the Fat Fairy" is now available in local bookstores and online at or

Science came to my rescue this weekend. Just as I was about to wrap my beloved mate in a strand of Christmas lights, we called a truce and booted up the computer to do some research.

Christmas lights can make or break a relationship. I know this may sound far-fetched, but all newly engaged couples should be handed a plastic bag full of last year's twisted, tangled lights and left alone in a room for four hours. If after four hours they are still speaking to each other, they should go ahead with the wedding. If not, they should call it off.

I'll bet the ranch that Kim Kardashian's 72-day marriage would have lasted longer if only they had hung Christmas lights together. She may very well have appreciated the 6-foot-9-inch height of her NBA-playing husband as they would never have needed a ladder to hang lights or a star on the tree.

In our household, one of us went to Catholic school and has infinite amounts of patience. He still lives in mortal fear of a certain Sister Mary Margaret. He is unfailingly kind, patient and polite. He has no problem stretching lights across the floor of the garage and spending hours untangling and testing them. Another member of the household sees this as an exercise in futility.

There are only two adjectives that apply to Christmas lights: crazy-making and frustrating. It is an indisputable fact that Christmas lights never work. They have no purpose but to fray nerves and start arguments. They tangle. They twist. They break. It is easier to buy a new set than to spend precious weekend hours untangling them and tearing the house apart looking for those infinitesimal replacement bulbs.

For once, I have scientific proof to back me up. I am happy to report a groundbreaking new study by University of California at San Diego physicists Douglas Smith and Dorian Raymer. These two guys (who probably were equally frustrated by Christmas lights) decided to find out if string, left alone in a box, would knot. They placed one piece of string in a clear plastic motorized box and spun it around. They took it out and "documented its state."

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This is complicated scientific speak that I will decode for you. It means they took the string out of the box and wrote down what it looked like — mainly whether it was straight or in a knot. Then, they put it back in the box and spun it around again. And again. And again.

These guys must have gone to Catholic school, because they did this 3,415 times. Being scientists, they had to vary the length of the string, rotation speed, size of the box, etc. What made them decide 3,415 times was the magic number? Allow me to quote: "The scientific answer is 3,415, (which) was around the point where we had statistically compelling results," Smith writes. "The human answer is that 3,415 times was about as much as we could stand."

Their study, "Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String," concluded beyond a shadow of a doubt that "knots formed fairly quickly, often within the first few seconds."


It is not your fault your Christmas lights go into the box neat and tidy and come out in knots. As soon as you pick up the box to move it into storage for the season, those strands of lights are forming knots.

If you still don't believe me, let me quote Andrew Belmonte, a professor of mathematics at Penn State. He said, "This is a sort of derivative law of nature stemming from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which broadly states that things naturally tend toward disorder over time."

I have a new appreciation for science.

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