Magazine article Science News

Tying Physical Theory into Stable Knots

Magazine article Science News

Tying Physical Theory into Stable Knots

Article excerpt

In the late 19th century, British scientist Lord Kelvin hypothesized that atoms could be described as vortices in the ether, an intangible fluid then thought to fill all space. He proposed that different elements would correspond to vortices bent into different types of knotted tubes forming closed loops.

Lord Kelvin's formulation of atomic theory in terms of knots never panned out. Nonetheless, the mathematics of knots has proved useful in recent years for describing knotted polymer strands (SN: 11/16/96, p. 310) and in various esoteric aspects of theoretical physics (SN: 5/21/88, p. 328).

Now, theorists have for the first time discovered a way to generate stable knotlike structures as solutions of the equations of field theory, which is widely used to describe many kinds of physical systems. Ludwig Faddeev of the Steklov Mathematical Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Antti J. Niemi of Uppsala University in Sweden report their findings in the May 1 Nature.

"Until now, no one has been able to construct a knot in field theory, which means that testing theories for knot production has been impossible," says Warren B. Perkins of the University of Wales at Swansea.

"Our results point to several experimental and theoretical situations where such structures may be relevant, ranging from defects in liquid crystals and vortices in superfluid helium to the structure-forming role of cosmic strings in the early universe," Niemi and Faddeev say. …

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