In the 19th century, Lord Kelvin made the inspired guess that elements are knots in the “ether”. Hydrogen would be one kind of knot, oxygen a different kind of knot—and so forth throughout the periodic table of elements. This idea led Peter Guthrie Tait to prepare meticulous and quite beautiful tables of knots, in an effort to elucidate when two knots are truly different. From the point of view of physics, Kelvin and Tait were on the wrong track: the atomic viewpoint soon made the theory of ether obsolete. But from the mathematical viewpoint, a gold mine had been discovered: The branch of mathematics now known as “knot theory” has been burgeoning ever since.

In his article “The Combinatorial Revolution in Knot Theory”, to appear in the December 2011 issue of the Notices of the AMS, Sam Nelson describes a novel approach to knot theory that has gained currency in the past several years and the mysterious new knot-like objects discovered in the process.

As sailors have long known, many different kinds of knots are possible; in fact, the variety is infinite. A *mathematical* knot can be imagined as a knotted circle: Think of a pretzel, which is a knotted circle of dough, or a rubber band, which is the “un-knot” because it is not knotted. Mathematicians study the patterns, symmetries, and asymmetries in knots and develop methods for distinguishing when two knots are truly different.

Mathematically, one thinks of the string out of which a knot is formed as being a one-dimensional object, and the knot itself lives in three-dimensional space. Drawings of knots, like the ones done by Tait, are projections of the knot onto a two-dimensional plane. In such drawings, it is customary to draw over-and-under crossings of the string as broken and unbroken lines. If three or more strands of the knot are on top of each other at single point, we can move the strands slightly without changing the knot so that every point on the plane sits below at most two strands of the knot. A planar knot diagram is a picture of a knot, drawn in a two-dimensional plane, in which every point of the diagram represents at most two points in the knot. Planar knot diagrams have long been used in mathematics as a way to represent and study knots.

Read more here A revolution in knot theory.