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On Science: AWOL socks (redux)

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 3, 2008 - It would seem I am not alone in losing single socks. My Nov. 19 column exploring why my home seems to lose single socks -- not pairs, but single socks -- has generated a lot of phone calls and e-mails, just as it did when I wrote a similar column several years ago - much more comment than my usual weekly column elicits. In deference to the strong interest expressed by my readers in this issue, I thought it would be interesting to review the many alternative opinions my readers express.

My chosen hypothesis: Single socks become trapped in the dryer. In my column, I suggested that individual socks might occasionally be drawn past the turning cylinder into the back of the dryer. Only three readers supported this proposition, the same number that proposed socks were being taken by extraterrestrials as flying saucer fuel. One supporter noted that she had never lost socks in many years of doing laundry, until she bought a dryer, but now loses them regularly. Another supporter reported a "smoking gun:" a single sock outside on the grass, by the dryer exhaust vent.

A hypothesis I had discarded: It's the washer. Four readers felt I had been too cavalier in dismissing the possibility that single socks were being trapped in the washing machine. They pointed out that I was mistaken in stating that there was no way a sock could pass out of the interior metal jacket of the washer. Actually, there is a thin gap between the rotating cylinder and the top of the washer through which an errant sock might escape.

My readers' most popular hypothesis: Static cling. Fully 21 readers (three male college professors and 18 women who actually do the family wash) advanced the proposition that the missing single socks 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, these readers point out, 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.

A few of these readers reported actually running across previously lost socks hiding in the sleeves of winter garments or other seldom-worn items. One of the college professors suggested forming a scientific society devoted to "zerohosierology," so that the role of static electricity in single sock sequestration can be more fully documented.

One doubting Thomas, criticizing his wife's penchant for the "static cling" hypothesis, wondered why her static-removing Cling-free sheets don't work on his single socks, and asked how often anyone had seen socks falling out of pant legs as people walk down the street.

Some readers suggested avoiding static cling by pinning socks together, while others suggested avoiding the problem altogether by buying all socks of the same color so that lonely socks could more easily find mates.

A novel hypotheses: The dog ate them. One reader reports that her dog loves to eat pre-washed socks "perfumed with foot odors," which she often finds somewhat the worse for wear in backyard dog poop.

A hypothesis I cannot help but love: Transformation. Three readers advanced an idea I had written about in last month's column - I guess they missed it - and that I have also heard attributed to Jerry Seinfeld. Like these readers, I cannot get this mad suggestion out of the quirky corner of my mind. Like many readers, 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!

Now there's a hypothesis worth testing.

As my previous attempt to use science to sort out the fate of the missing socks has not led to a result many readers share, I'm going to have to have another shot at addressing the problem. I invite my readers to join me in the First Annual St. Louis Sock Census.

Taking a Sharpie permanent black or white marker, I am going to number each of my socks (1A & 1B, 2A & 2B, etc.). I may look a little unusual walking around, but all in the cause of science... I'm going to pair each number up when they go into the laundry basket and wash, check the pairings before they go into the dryer, and check them again at folding.

My family's hilarity at daddy's involvement in the details of family laundry will be a small price to pay for scientific enlightenment on such a universal question. If your humor and curiosity can stand it, join me. We'll report on the results in 283 days.

'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.