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On Science: The Case of the Missing Socks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 18, 2008 - This column represents sort of an anniversary -- I have been writing columns for the Beacon for six months this week. By way of celebrating this, I have elected to rerun an old column -- the most popular column from my three year stint as a columnist for the Post Dispatch. Devoted to explaining how scientists evaluate ideas, It engendered a lot of letters from readers who had their own ideas to contribute, and I hope you too will enjoy it.

Where Are All My Socks Going?

All my life, for as far back as I can remember, I have been losing socks. Not pairs of socks, mind you, but single socks. I first became aware of this peculiar phenomenon when as a young man I went away to college. When Thanksgiving rolled around that first year, I brought an enormous duffle bag of laundry home. My mother, instead of braining me, dumped the lot into the washer and dryer, and so discovered what I had not noticed — that few of my socks matched anymore.

That was 40 years ago, but it might as well have been yesterday. All my life, I have continued to lose socks. This last Christmas I threw out a sock drawer full of socks that didn’t match, and took advantage of sales to buy a dozen pairs of brand-new ones. Last week, when I did a body count, three of the new pairs had lost a sock!

Enough. I have set out to solve the mystery of the missing socks. How? The way Sherlock Holmes would have, scientifically. Holmes worked by eliminating those possibilities that he found not to be true. A scientist calls possibilities “hypotheses” and, like Sherlock, rejects those that do not fit the facts. Sherlock tells us that when only one possibility remains unrejected, then — however unlikely — it must be true.

Hypothesis 1: It’s the socks. I have four pairs of socks bought as Christmas gifts but forgotten until recently. Deep in my sock drawer, they have remained undisturbed for five months. If socks disappear because of some intrinsic property (say the manufacturer has somehow designed them to disappear to generate new sales), then I could expect at least one of these undisturbed ones to have left the scene by now. However, when I looked, all four pairs were complete. Undisturbed socks don’t disappear. Thus I reject the hypothesis that the problem is caused by the socks themselves.

Hypothesis 2: Transformation, a fanciful suggestion by science fiction writer Avram Davidson in his 1958 story “Or All the Seas with Oysters” that I cannot get out of the quirky corner of my mind. I discard the socks I have worn each evening in a laundry basket in my closet. Over many years, I have noticed a tendency for socks I have placed in the closet to disappear. Over that same long period, as my socks are disappearing, there is something in my closet that seems to multiply — COAT HANGERS! Socks are larval coat hangers! To test this outlandish hypothesis, I had only to move the laundry basket out of the closet. Several months later, I was still losing socks, so this hypothesis is rejected.

Hypothesis 3: Static cling. The missing single socks may have been hiding within the sleeves of sweat shirts or jackets, inside trouser legs, or curled up within seldom-worn garments. Rubbing around in the dryer, socks can garner quite a bit of static electricity, easily enough to cause them to cling to other garments. Socks adhering to the outside of a shirt or pant leg are soon dislodged, but ones that find themselves within a sleeve, leg, or fold may simply stay there, not “lost” so much as misplaced. However, after a diligent search, I did not run across any previously lost socks hiding in the sleeves of my winter garments or other seldom-worn items, so I reject this hypothesis.

Hypothesis 4: I lose my socks going to or from the laundry. Perhaps in handling the socks from laundry basket to the washer/dryer and back to my sock drawer, a sock is occasionally lost. To test this hypothesis, I have pawed through the laundry coming into the washer. No single socks. Perhaps the socks are lost after doing the laundry, during folding or transport from laundry to sock drawer. If so, there should be no single socks coming out of the dryer. But there are! The singletons are first detected among the dry laundry, before folding. Thus I eliminate the hypothesis that the problem arises from mishandling the laundry.

Hypothesis 5: I lose them during washing. It seems the problem is in the laundry room. Perhaps the washing machine is somehow “eating” my socks. I looked in the washing machine to see if a sock could get trapped inside, or chewed up by the machine, but I can see no possibility. The clothes slosh around in a closed metal container with water passing in and out through little holes no wider than a pencil. No sock could slip through such a hole. There is a thin gap between the rotating cylinder and the top of the washer through which an errant sock might escape, but my socks are too bulky for this route. So I eliminate the hypothesis that the washing machine is the culprit.

Hypothesis 6: I lose them during drying. Perhaps somewhere in the drying process socks are being lost. I stuck my head in our clothes dryer to see if I could see any socks, and I couldn’t. However, as I look, I can see a place a sock could go — behind the drying wheel! A clothes dryer is basically a great big turning cylinder with dry air blowing through the middle. The edges of the turning cylinder don’t push hard against the side of the machine. Just maybe, every once in a while, a sock might get pulled through, sucked into the back of the machine.

To test this hypothesis, I should take the back of the dryer off and look inside to see if it is stuffed with my missing socks. My wife, knowing my mechanical abilities, is not in favor of this test. Thus, until our dryer dies and I can take it apart, I shall not be able to reject hypothesis 6. Lacking any other likely hypothesis, I take Sherlock Holmes’ advice and tentatively conclude that the dryer is the culprit.

'On science'

George B. Johnson's "On Science" column looks at scientific issues and explains them in an accessible manner. There is no dumbing down in Johnson's writing; rather he uses analogy and precise terms to open the world of science to others.

Johnson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Biology at Washington University, has taught biology and genetics to undergraduates for more than 30 years. Also professor of genetics at Washington University’s School of Medicine, Johnson is a student of population genetics and evolution, renowned for his pioneering studies of genetic variability.

He has authored more than 50 scientific publications and seven texts, including "BIOLOGY" (with botanist Peter Raven), "THE LIVING WORLD" and a widely used high school biology textbook, "HOLT BIOLOGY."

As the founding director of The Living World, the education center at the St Louis Zoo, from 1987 to 1990, he was responsible for developing innovative high-tech exhibits and new educational programs.

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