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illustration of a closed loop (a circle) and progressively more knotted loops
Credit: Jkasd

This is a chart of all prime knots having seven or fewer crossings (not including mirror images) along with the unknot (or "trivial knot"), a closed loop that is not a prime knot. The knots are labeled with Alexander-Briggs notation. Many of these knots have special names, including the trefoil knot (31) and figure-eight knot (41). Knot theory is the study of knots viewed as different possible embeddings of a 1-sphere (a circle) in three-dimensional Euclidean space (R3). These mathematical objects are inspired by real-world knots, such as knotted ropes or shoelaces, but don't have any free ends and so cannot be untied. (Two other closely related mathematical objects are braids, which can have loose ends, and links, in which two or more knots may be intertwined.) One way of distinguishing one knot from another is by the number of times its two-dimensional depiction crosses itself, leading to the numbering shown in the diagram above. The prime knots play a roll very similar to prime numbers in number theory; in particular, any given (non-trivial) knot can be uniquely expressed as a "sum" of prime knots (a series of prime knots spliced together) or is itself prime. Early knot theory enjoyed a brief period of popularity among physicists in the late 19th century after William Thomson suggested that atoms are knots in the luminiferous aether. This led to the first serious attempts to catalog all possible knots (which, along with links, now number in the billions). In the early 20th century, knot theory was recognized as a subdiscipline within geometric topology. Scientific interest was resurrected in the latter half of the 20th century by the need to understand knotting problems in organic chemistry, including the behavior of DNA, and the recognition of connections between knot theory and quantum field theory.

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