Why do socks get lost? Where do they go?

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  • Author Jonah Shainberg
  • Published August 22, 2022
  • Word count 1,843

Why Do Socks Get Lost While Doing Laundry? Where Do They Go? by Jonah Shainberg

Numerous explanations and theories have been proposed to explain how and why socks are lost, or thought to be lost while doing the laundry. Scholars have discovered a variety of sciences to address the question, from the supernatural to the scientific. I seek to answer the questions of why are socks often lost while doing the laundry, and where do they go?

The most common explanations are that the socks are lost en route in and out of the laundry room, or were trapped inside or between components of the washer and dryer. Mechanics suggest that the high rotational speed makes it possible for small clothes to slip through a tear or hole in the rubber gasket that is between the spinning drum and the outer metal or plastic casing. They can get stuck between the seal and drum. Socks can also bunch up or unravel and get caught in the washing machine’s water drain pipe or the dryer's lint trap.

James Darmstadt, a quality control engineer at GE Appliances, states that “socks most likely slipped through a hole in the gasket-that thick-rubber ring on front-loading washers that create a tight seal when the door closes”. This event happens on high-speed spinning equipment, which takes years to build up, and has high use rates. Darmstadt continues to explain that “tears, slits, holes…could lead to disappearing socks as water leaks.” He adds that top-loading machines also have issues as “clothing could walk to the outer edge…and land in the dead space between the tub and the side metal walls”.

Sears home repair expert Wayne Archer said the dryers aren't much of a problem, but if the lint screens are missing or damaged, the socks may disappear. Filters in the washing machine are also important because they trap items before they enter the drain pump assembly. Often, you will find socks behind or under washers and dryers, or even before it gets to the laundry room.

Audrey Reed-Granger, a spokeswoman for the Whirlpool Institute of Fabric Science, confers that” tiny socks had slipped between the drum of the machine and the wash basket and were trapped in the pump”. She further states that often the sock never made it to the washing machine in the first place, it got dropped behind the hamper, the washing machine is overloaded and is lost within the machine so never see the dryer, or that once in the dryer the static cling pastes it onto or into another article of clothing, not to be discovered until days later. The static cling is a built-up electric charge on the surface of objects. The dryer tumbling action creates friction and subsequently creates both negative and positive charges. This action is more prevalent in polyester which attracts electrons, and wool which wants to give up electrons.

Mechanical explanations may not explain the missing socks properly, so could they have anything to do with the physics of the universe? Stephen Hawking, in his book The Nature of Space and Time argues that spontaneous black holes are the cause of lost socks. He was describing a quantum vortex, which would allow the dryer to open up a rift in the space-time continuum, and the sock would fall through a black hole, conceivably transporting the sock from one location to another. Quantum mechanics describes the dual behavior of particle-like and wave-like, and the interaction of energy and matter.

In laundry mechanics, quantum mechanics can handle the problem of missing socks and re-state particles as the laundry detergent particles, combined with the destabilizing behavior resulting from the interaction between the spin cycle and the socks. Quantum mechanics adds very low to very high changes in energy or temperature, which is what front loading washing machines use. The result can be a disappearance of the sock.

The Quantum Theory of Laundry was established by Dr. Brian Reardon. This theory has certain assumptions. First, the sock never leaves the enclosed system of the washer and dryer. Second, in the washing machine, there are various openings, including a lint collector, that produce a wave function that concludes that the sock never really goes away. Rather, at the moment of disturbance, as the machine stops, a wave function placed the sock temporarily in the washing system or transferred it into lint. Dr. Reardon continues to state that “The origin of lint can now be defined as the sum of probabilities that a sock traveled or tunneled through the washing system into the lint trap”. This phenomenon is similar to the proton and electron tunneling phenomena in quantum mechanics.

According to Dr. Brian J. Reardon, these fundamental questions begin with the Decay Theory. As to the number of socks in a load, it can be expressed as a decreasing exponential function of time, which is similar to radioactive decay. This event would also explain “the origin of lint and why new socks tend to release more lint than old socks”. He rejects this theory because socks would never completely disappear, or even reappear. He implies that this would contradict your everyday experience.

Also, quantum mechanics requires the use of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the uncertainty of whether I will ever see the sock again in its entirety. If I disturb the washer by looking inside, that very act will increase the error in knowing exactly how fast the sock was moving inside the system as a whole, which could inadvertently misplace the sock somewhere else in the washing system.

This leads me to String Theory, which shows that particles of physics are not points, but one-dimensional infinitesimal strings traveling through space. This means that there are dimensions beyond height, width, length, and depth. If so, then all of these dimensions exist along a string an instant behind or after where you are right now. The problem with this theory is that the sock may not exist yet, which leads me to other existential concerns of how I can lose something that does not exist, and how can I find something I did not lose yet?

These theories have far-reaching implications because the more you disrupt the system, the greater the chance of losing your socks, lint removal makes finding socks more difficult, using the same machines at the Laundromat increases your chances of retrieving previously lost socks, and finally the nightmare of requiring washing machine repair people to study quantum mechanics. Additionally, are the costs to replace socks. Missing socks are an economic issue as in the UK alone, 84 million socks are missing every month or 1.3 socks per person. If we assume an average life span of 81 years, then a total of 1,264 socks are lost, and the price is about $3500. These explanations were provided in a 2016 study of 2000 people, by a statistician Dr. Geoff Ellis, and psychologist Dr. Simon Moore, at Samsung Electronics in the UK. It also answers the question of where they go, with the complexity of the washing load.

More than that, the research states other human errors of perception and psychology, such as falling behind furniture without anyone noticing, or mismatching by poor folding and sorting, as in adding to wrong color batches and then getting separated from its matching sock. Color coordination is an issue, as statistically colored socks make up 55% of these losses, compared to white and patterned socks. Coordination is highly complex as your memory is temporarily abandoning you, as you see a sock and do not immediately find its partner. You remember it was missing, but forget its type or color. You often count as lost each sock in a pair, even though neither is lost. It gets more complicated, as an unpaired sock is interpreted as evidence of a loss. They can also be intentionally misplaced or stolen, fall in difficult to reach or hard to see spaces behind furniture or radiators or even a high wind that blows them off a line. The study also suggests that those who take pride in doing laundry are more attentive and socks are lost less often.

The researchers found three psychological reasons that are shared among groups as ‘diffusion of responsibility’, or “the tendency is for individuals to assume someone else will take responsibility, so no one does, and socks get lost. “‘Heuristics’ suggest that people look for shortcuts when we want to save time and effort. When we lose the TV remote, we tend to search in the likeliest places such as under a cushion to find it. When socks are lost, we simply look at the easiest place and then assume the sock is lost forever. This suggests that we give up the search too easily when something is not found in a place we assume it should be. It may be that we are in denial. ‘Confirmation bias’ is to pay more attention to fit our beliefs. In sock loss, it is the assumption that the sock is forever lost because we want to believe it, despite evidence to the contrary.

The researchers devised a ‘Sock Loss Index’ formula that predicts the frequency of sock loss for a given individual: L (p x f) + C (t x s) – (P x A). It shows that the greater amount of washing, the higher the chance or probability of sock loss. The complexity of the wash load and your attention to detail in the cleaning process are the factors with the biggest impact on sock loss. Complexity in washing could be how the batches are divided up based on whites/colors/temp and to the number of socks in each wash cycle.

We are taking laundry multiplied by washing complexity and subtracting the positivity of doing the laundry multiplied by the degree of attention. Explained in more detail, is the laundry size (L) calculated by how many people are in the household (p) with the frequency of washes per week (f). The washing complexity (C) is calculated by adding how many types of wash (t) households do in a week (darks and whites) and multiplying that number of socks washed in a week (s). You then subtract the positivity towards doing the laundry (P) measured on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being a strong dislike of doing clothes washing to 5 representing strong enjoyment of doing clothes washing. Then, you multiply P with your degree of attention (A) which represents the sum of how many things you do at the start of the wash cycle, such as check pockets, unroll sleeves, or unroll socks.

These explanations provide logical reasoning combining mechanics and behavioral psychology to answer the question of why socks disappear. For wishful thinkers, there is always quantum mechanics, which allows the sock to travel through gravitational waves, as the washing machine’s gravitational pull creates a worm or black hole, or subatomic strings in another dimension. For those who now are concerned with the safety of doing laundry, Phyllis Diller has told us that “Housework can’t kill you, but why to take a chance?”

Jonah Shainberg is attending college and plans to become a sports and life coach upon graduation. He is working on essays in the areas of linguistics-especially what your dog is thinking, philosophy of happiness- why I won’t accept anything less than euphoria, artificial intelligence- analyzing through algorithms why some things are funny and some are not, and photography- how to keep at it and not lose focus. He plans to publish 50 of his essays by the winter of 2022.

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