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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 2006 > Article Detail

FEATURE ARTICLE

Knot Theory's Odd Origins

The modern study of knots grew out of an attempt by three 19th-century Scottish physicists to apply knot theory to fundamental questions about the universe

Daniel Silver

Figure 3. William Thomson's vortex-atom theory...Click to Enlarge Image

Long before string theory captured physicists' imaginations, Scottish scientists William Thomson and Peter Guthrie Tait developed their own "theory of everything." In 1867, after watching Tait perform experiments with smoke rings made of poisonous gases, Thomson concluded that the basic elements of matter were composed of knotted tubes of ether. Tait would even claim that this "vortex-atom theory" could help prove the existence of an afterlife. Their conclusions may have been wrong, but their efforts led to the birth of knot theory and the first catalog of knots, which today has been extended to include more than 1.7 million entries. Knot theory is now one of the most active areas of mathematics, and the search for new applications continues.


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