Knotty Circumstance: How That Shoelace Study Went Viral

By John Lawson

The study that would become a media sensation started innocently enough. It was about ten years ago, when a 4-year-old naively asked her father, “Why do shoelaces come untied?” and said father, who happens to be Oliver M. O’Reilly, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, couldn’t come up with a good explanation, even after watching myriad YouTube tutorials. “It seemed like a great mechanics problem and no one had solved it.”

But it wasn’t so earth—or foot—shattering that it had to be resolved right away. It was in 2014 that O’Reilly recruited graduate students Christopher Daily-Diamond ’11, M.S. ’13, Ph.D. ’17, and Christine Gregg, M.S. ’15, to help him solve the case of the loose laces. After initial preparations, the three hit the campus Recreational Sports Facility with a borrowed high-speed camera and a pair of running shoes. What they filmed that day would become the turning point of both their study and a news frenzy.

“We realized that we had seen something that no one else had seen,” said Daily-Diamond, one of the co-authors of the study. The video, later released on the University’s YouTube page, shows co-author Gregg’s shoelaces gradually come untied in stunning slow-motion as she runs on a treadmill. The phenomenon then had to be explained through math, physics, and rigorous experimental trials. “We worked for three years in a vacuum, essentially,” said O’Reilly.

The team met regularly after work and on weekends to test their hypothesis in a controlled setting. “Sometimes I felt like I really didn’t want to do this anymore,” said Daily-Diamond, who finished his dissertation this year. Studies in the hard science world are subject to a rigid peer-review process that also poses the daunting possibility of failure, and due to the oddball nature of their subject there was “an added onus on us to get it right.”

The results favorably verified their hypothesis in 2016. After The Royal Society accepted the study in March of 2017, the journal requested still images of Christine Gregg’s treadmill video for the cover. “As soon as we sent out the press release we were flooded with requests,” from news organizations, said Brett Israel, Berkeley’s scientific communications manager.

The story quickly went viral: USA Today, BBC News, The New York Times, NBC News, The Guardian, PBS, Cosmopolitan, NPR, ABC, The Daily Mail, and Nature were just some of the outlets that featured the study. A day after its release on BBC.com the article reached the top of the most-read list. A flurry of radio requests ensued. At the center of it all was the friendly and somewhat perplexed figure of O’Reilly.

“I got an email from The Economist, thinking it was for a subscription. But it was really from a journalist asking me to fact check the article they were about to release.”

When it hit the press, the project’s endearing genesis story seemed to resonate with audiences just as much as the findings. Curiosity not commerce drove the study, and not a cent of taxpayer money went into it, which gave the project a virtuous glow.

And of course there was the relatability factor. “There’s always some interest for [Berkeley research] but when it’s something as universal as your shoelaces coming untied on the street it takes it to a whole new level,” says Israel, who acts as a conduit to the press. “This is the kind of story that only comes along once or twice a year.”

As for O’Reilly, while he got no money from the study, the public reception was reward enough. But now life and research go on. Even though the shoelace study evoked the greatest public response of his career “by a mile,” he says, it will be business as usual—studying and teaching about soft robotics and the kinematics of the eye, among other things.

When asked if their shoelaces still come untied, both O’Reilly and Daily-Diamond admit it happens at least once a day.

“If you’re really worried about your shoelace coming untied,” says Daily-Diamond, “wear loafers.”

From the Fall 2017 Bugged issue of California.
Filed under: Innovation
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Comments

The study went viral, yet my critique of the study – which contains some startling revelations, and which was similarly published by The Royal Society – doesn’t seem to get the same recognition. Do we all simply *want* to believe, to the point of dismissing worthwhile criticism?

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