The Weekly Newsmagazine of Science
|Recently on MathTrek:|
March 27, 1999
<<Back to Contents
Tying Down a Random Walk
The business world is gradually slipping into casual couture, not just on Fridays but throughout the work week. Even law offices in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are succumbing to the relaxed look.
One casualty of this sweeping change in style is the necktie. For many men, the ordeal of fashioning a neat tie knot is fading into the distant past.
It seems ironic that two physicists have now put necktie knots back on center stage. Thomas M.A. Fink and Yong Mao of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, have developed a mathematical model of tie knots. The model suggests six new "aesthetically pleasing" knots, ready for sampling by any gentleman interested in cutting-edge sartorial splendor.
The standard tie is a tapered piece of fabric. A tie knot is initiated when the tie's wide end is brought either over or under the narrow end. The knot-tying procedure then continues with a sequence of moves (half-turns) bringing the wide end to the left, center, or right (though never in the same direction two times in a row). With each half-turn, the wide end alternates between moving toward the shirt and heading away from it. A final flurry of moves wraps up the process.
Fink and Mao modeled knot-tying sequences as random walks (see Knotted Walks, Nov. 1, 1997) plotted on a triangular grid, where consecutive steps can't be made in the same direction.
"Practical considerations (namely the finite length of the tie), as well as aesthetic ones, suggest an upper bound on knot size," Fink and Mao note in the March 4 Nature. By limiting the number of moves to nine or fewer, they found that a conventional, tapered necktie can be tied in 85 ways.
Those sequences include the four knots (four-in-hand, Pratt, half-Windsor, and Windsor) currently in widespread use. Six additional configurations have the appropriate symmetry (an equal number of left and right moves) and balance (mixing of moves to create a tightly bound, well-shaped knot) to merit serious consideration, the researchers remark.
The results explain why the Windsor knot is wider than the four-in-hand knot. It requires more center moves, which tend to make a knot bulkier.
The new knots are depicted at http://www.tcm.phy.cam.ac.uk/~tmf20/stuff/ties/diagrams.html. Each one has a mathematical label, which consists of a pair of numbers. The first number gives the total number of moves, and the second denotes the number of center moves. You can judge for yourself which of the new knots, if any, are worth taking seriously (see http://www.tcm.phy.cam.ac.uk/~tmf20/stuff/ties/groomsmen.html).
So far the new knots are nameless. Any suggestions?
Fink and Mao have submitted a lengthy paper detailing their results to the Journal of Physics A. Interestingly, similar random-walk models play an important role in studies of protein folding, which is Fink's main research interest. Meanwhile, the researchers have novel knots to show off in Cambridge University dining halls, where jacket and tie are still required.
Comments are welcome. Please send messages to Ivars Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ivars Peterson is the mathematics/computers writer and online editor at Science News. He is the author of *The Mathematical Tourist, Islands of Truth, Newton's Clock, Fatal Defect, and The Jungles of Randomness. His current work in progress is Fragments of Infinity: A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics and Art (to be published in 1999 by Wiley).
MATHEMUSEMENTS: Look for math-related articles by Ivars Peterson every month in the children's general-interest magazine Muse (http://www.musemag.com) from the publishers of Cricket and Smithsonian magazine.
Back to Top
Copyright © 1999 Science Service