Can Quantum Mechanics Solve 'Missing Socks' Mystery?

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Putting a load of laundry in the wash can be both a joyous and somber occasion. Joyous, in that your laundry will soon be refreshingly clean and the overflowing clothes hamper will be relieved of its smelly burden; but somber, in that you may never see some of your socks ever again.

Unlike most clothes purchases, socks rarely last very long. Many fall victim to rips and tears, but even more vanish in the laundry process. This is a mystery that - for the most part - remains unsolved.

missing_socks.jpgNot for lack of trying, mind you. A host of theories and explanations have been furnished, with some actually yielding results. Could the socks be lost somewhere within the innards of your washer and dryer? Depending upon the appliance, it's a definite possibility. Drew, a caller into The Naked Scientist radio show, took apart his washing machine and found three socks in the drain tube.

Socks can also get easily lodged within other pieces of clothing. Their small size and susceptibility to static cling makes them ideal candidates to wind up in sweaters, jackets, and pant-legs. Upon adorning these articles of clothing and venturing from your home, the socks can end up being deposited in strange, foreign environments, such as in the coffee room at work.

A little explanation: Static electricity is the build-up of electric charge on the surface of objects. Due to the friction created by clothes tumbling in the dryer, certain articles of clothing can become positively or negatively charged. Oppositely charged pieces will tend to stick to each other. Polyester and wool socks are especially vulnerable to the whims of static electricity because polyester tends to attract electrons and wool tends to want to give up electrons.

Static cling and the "lost in the machine" theory can explain many incidents of missing socks, but they definitely can't explain all of them. Thus, Brian J. Reardon thought it necessary to comically put forth a quantum mechanical approach to the problem. His highly theoretical "quantum theory of laundry" (QTL) is based on three "intuitive assumptions":

    • The sock never leaves the enclosed system of the washer or dryer.
    • While the sock is confined to the total washer system, it is not confined to the main washing compartment. It may be in the main washing compartment, the lint trap, or anywhere in between.
    • The sock can be expressed mathematically as a wave function of position and time (Y(x,t)).

Given these assumptions and a large amount of highly technical explanation (that had me wishing I didn't snooze through so many college physics lectures), Reardon concludes:

The QTL explains that socks never actually disappear. Quite simply, at the time of disturbance or stopping of the machine they have a wave function that puts them temporarily in the washing system or completely converts them to lint.

Reardon's application of quantum mechanics to the case of AWOL socks goes to show just how much of an enigma the situation really is. The theories presented in this blog post may very well have some truth to them, but at the same time, I wouldn't be surprised if a peculiar race of tiny bearded gnomes were stealing our socks to fuel their own profit venture.

underpants-gnomes.jpg

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