What good is science if it can’t tell me where are all my socks are going?

Everybody has something that bugs them, some nagging question that just won’t go away. For me, its “Where are my socks going?”

All my life, for as far back as I can remember, I have been loosing 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 & dryer, and so discovered what I had not noticed — that few of my socks matched any more.

When I returned to college the following week, I looked to see if my roommate had my missing socks. Nope. He had lots of mismatches too, but not the same ones as me.

That was forty years ago, but it might as well have been yesterday. All my life, I have continued to loose 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 which 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 till recently. Deep in my sock drawer, they have remained undisturbed for four 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 we can reject the hypothesis that the problem is somehow caused by the socks themselves.

Hypothesis 2: The “little people” take them. In folklore, elves and leprechauns are said to inhabit Irish houses and borrow items like socks. I am Irish. If my house is infested with wee “little people”, then it is logical to suppose that these tiny immigrants from Ireland would avoid a non-Irish house. So I called my roommate of forty years ago, still my friend, now living in southern California. A Frenchman, there is not an Irish drop of blood in his body, and no self-respecting leprechaun would be caught dead in his house. Does he too still loose socks? Yep. Thus I reject the hypothesis that the loss of socks is caused by Irish “little people.”

Hypothesis 3: I loose them going to or from the laundry. Perhaps in handling the socks from laundry basket to 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 4: I loose 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. So I eliminate the hypothesis that the washing machine is the culprit

Hypothesis 5: I loose them during drying. Sherlock Holmes would be encouraged that we are closing in on the truth, as only one possibility seems to remain. 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 5. If any reader has an alternative testable hypothesis, I should like to hear of it. Or am I the only one who looses socks?

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