Bill Nye the Science Guy Thinks You're Tying Your Shoes Wrong
Wired Bill Nye 7.11.17
As I walk through life, I often look down at people’s shoes. No disrespect intended. I’m not trying to avoid eye contact with you. I’m paying attention to the imperfections in the world and looking for ways to help fix a few of them.
You see; shoelaces are not just shoelaces when you view them through the filter of everything all at once. They are the raw material of knots, and knots are the embodiment of mathematical beauty; mathematical beauty is a fabulously useful tool for rational problem solving; and rational problem solving is, of course, the most powerful tool for changing the world. In my Nye’s-eye view of the world, tying a well-crafted knot is like a personal promise to engage in that whole glorious process. I often have three such knots with me: two on my shoes and one around my neck in the form of my beloved bow tie.
But when I look at the knots all around me—well, it’s troubling. There’s a lot of work to be done.
Try looking down yourself, and what do you see? Around half of the people I meet tie their shoes with bow knots that are prone to coming untied from the day-to-day flexing inherent in walking. These bowknotters often compensate by tying their laces with doubled knots, piling one asymmetrical knot upon the other in a desperate bid to keep it together—or worse, they repeatedly walk with loose laces dragging. It doesn’t have to be this way. With a little more thought and attention, you can bring inspirational order to what may seem like one of the most mundane objects in your daily life. Plus, your shoes will fit better and stay tied.
Let’s start with a simple experiment we can do together, right here and right now, using only the loosened laces on your shoe. Begin by tying one of the most useful of all knots, the square knot. It’s also called a “reef knot,” as it was and is, from time to time, used to reduce the sail area of a sail on a boat, to reef the sail in a storm or strong wind.
Wrap one lace over the other, then the second lace over the first one. You may have heard the expression “right over left, left over right.”
Look at that knot. It’s beautiful, symmetrical; it’s the marriage of two curves. This square or reef knot is square; I mean it’s symmetrical. It’s the basis for the knot we call a “bow.” Now, untie the second of the two wraps. You might go, “right over right, right over right” again. Please examine this knot. I hope you notice it’s not as good looking as the reef knot described above.
If you’re like me, you might at this point exclaim, “Oh, the asymmetry!” This lack of balance found in about half of all conventional shoelace knots is heartbreaking. What we want in a square or a reef knot is symmetry. Here, mathematical beauty is a means to an end. It’s more than beauty for beauty’s sake, although that ain’t bad. It’s a matter of function: A shoe tied with a reef knot will stay tied long after other, sloppier knots have come unraveled. In shoelaces, as in so much of physics, symmetry is the key to balance and stability.
When you tie a conventional bow on your shoe, check to see if its two loops, or bunny ears, lie perpendicular across your foot, left to right, or lengthwise along your foot, toe to heel. If the loops or ears come to rest in a neat left-to-right position (“athwart,” as we say at sea), that’s the way we want it. That’s symmetrical, and that arrangement will seldom come untied. This is what I call a “square bow.” If one gently pulls the loops so that the loose ends of the laces pop free, the knot that is left there underneath is the beautiful square knot. Even if you perceive your laces to be woven from slippery stuff, the squarebow knot will hold its own once it is gently but snuggly tightened. Or as the saying goes, any knot has to be properly “dressed.” (For you crossword puzzlers out there, the loop of the lace is called a “bight.” It’s pronounced just like our word “bite,” and it works wonderfully in Scrabble.) The unsymmetrical knot, on the other hand, will slip with each step. It will start to lose its shape, its integrity, and its stability the moment you start walking and put stress on it. Oh, the trauma; oh, the suffering.
As you may have inferred, I tie my bows by forming a single bight and wrapping the other end of the lace around the base of the bight. If you are among those who tie laces by finishing the knot with two loops, or “bunny ears,” it all works the same way. The bunny ears are your knot-ty-er bights. Allow me to reassure you bunny-ear, double-bight people: You can create a square bow just fine. If you tie the base overhand knot, then form your two bunny ear bights, and tie them in the opposite direction from your base overhand knot, you will produce a lovely square bow.
Now, I loved my grandmothers. They were both remarkable people. They raised my parents, after all, and I believe anyone who met either of them would say, “That girl has plenty of common sense.” Nevertheless, the asymmetrical, not-quite-a-proper reef knot is, by long tradition, called a “granny knot.” Sorry, Nana. Sorry, Mini. We seek a square bow rather than a “granny bow.” If you have suffered lo the many years of your life with asymmetrical granny bows, you’ll find it’s a hard habit to break. But it can be done. Try this: Reverse the first wrap of your laces. Instead of going right over left, reverse that and go left over right. Then let your muscle memory take over for finishing the bow, either by wrapping individual laces or by wrapping bunny ear loops.
All this talk of shoe laces may seem like an unimportant detail of everyday life, but it is always underfoot—or literally atop foot. A shoelace knot is a metaphor for the scientific approach to problem-solving. Too many people learned to tie bow knots in their shoes and accepted that imperfect, unsymmetrical, time-consuming route rather than dig deeper for a better long-term approach. So when I wax poetic about the beauty of a square knot, it’s not only because I like showing off my sailor skills; it’s because good design should be good all the way down to the details, even when we’re talking about something fairly straightforward like tying knots. I think we should all make a habit out of expecting the best problem-solving from ourselves, and there’s no better place to start than with design problems we encounter every day. That’s where things like shoelaces work well or . . . not. (Get it? Or knot? Uh . . . sorry.)
There is another big idea in here, masquerading as a small one. Even if you have tied your laces the other way, in granny-bow fashion, for years on end, you still have a chance to change. This ongoing potential for improvement is at the heart of the scientific way of looking at the world. In politics or religion, changing your ideas can be risky or even heretical. In science, abandoning a decades-old habit in response to new information reflects a vital quality of open-mindedness. Such open-mindedness is essential for making a fundamental discovery . . . or for keeping your shoes tied.
Excerpted from Everything All At Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap into Radical Curiosity and Solve Any Problem by Bill Nye. Copyright © 2017 by Bill Nye. With permission of the publisher, Rodale Books. All rights reserved.