The following image describes the problem better than I can:

A tangled slinky.

As you know, sometimes Slinkies can twist such that the direction of the coil can be reversed. However, though reversed, the coil still maintains its radius, number of turns, and shape. How is this possible? Intuitively, untwisting a slinky should increase the radius of curvature and decrease the number of turns.

I have read about inverting spheres and topological spheres with holes, and this problem seems as though it could be analyzed with similar methods. I am new to topology but if someone could point me in the right direction, either with a resource (textbook, paper) or an explanation that would be helpful.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Note sure if this is really a math question, but spiral phone cords do this, too. $\endgroup$ – Thomas Andrews Jul 23 '13 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ Funnily, I found this while I was on Quora. Not sure if it will be helpful, but the authors talk about number of ways of tangling of headphones. $\endgroup$ – Torsten Hĕrculĕ Cärlemän Jul 23 '13 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ It's not about Slinkies, but this paper describes how a certain metal band can coil: Topology Explains Why Automobile Sunshades Fold Oddly $\endgroup$ – Chris Culter Jul 23 '13 at 21:00

The reason that Slinkies become tangled up is because they retain radius, number of turns, and shape. The helix of a Slinky, like the helix of DNA, has a certain twistiness that it prefers (that is, so many turns per cm), and when you manipulate the ends of the Slinky in an attempt to increase or decrease its twist, it resists and transfers the twist to the body of the Slinky, twisting itself through space. The bottom of this Wikipedia page has a simulation of this occurring with an elastic rod under twisting stress. When this happens with DNA it is called "super-coiling". This is also the main problem with phone cords, having one free end (the receiver) which can go through several 360 degree rotations without you noticing and one fixed end (the base) which cannot twist to relieve the tension. The solution is to spin the receiver around enough to de-twist the cord.

The "reversal" of the Slinky coils is because the end of the Slinky has been moved through some of its coils, in effect twisting it through space in a way that cancels one of the coils, while reversing the others between the canceled coil and the end. The U-shapes where the Slinky changes direction are these canceled coils. Two possible solutions: For a stiff coil like the metal Slinky, it is best to reverse the operation, moving the end of the Slinky past/through the U-shape to uncancel the coil. The second method works best with plastic coils, like plastic Slinkies or phone cords (which rarely but sometimes succumb to this). There is a manipulation that I learned while messing with a tangled phone cord, but which is too difficult to describe here, which moves the U-shape along the coil. This way you can move it off the end of the coil (if the end is free), or take two U-shapes and cancel them out with each other.

Ultimately, if you plan on putting a Slinky in storage, either put it back in the box it came in, or put a piece of tape on the inside and outside lengthwise. The tape will prevent the ends from twisting or manipulating through space through the coils.


protected by Alexander Gruber Jul 23 '13 at 20:01

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.