We've all struggled with knots. As anyone who owns an MP3 player or mobile phone knows, anything but the most careful winding of the headphone cord or power cable can result in a hopeless mess of tangles.
Knots are more than simple irritations, they can actually pose a threat to life. A single knot can reduce the breaking strength of climbing rope by up to 50%. Spontaneous knot formation in umbilical cords can quadruple the risk of fetal mortality. Spontaneous knotting in DNA leads to faulty gene transcription and an increase in the rate of potentially dangerous mutations.
Despite this, remarkably little is known about the formation of knots — or how to prevent them. This is why the University of Aston is proposing a mass experiment to fill in some of the gaps in the science of knots and address a mathematical conjecture. Researchers are looking for groups of keen students in schools who want to involve themselves in active data gathering and interpretation and to contribute to a genuine piece of novel science.
Your school's involvement and effort need not be extensive. The experiment can be carried out in school, in a class environment, with minimal resources (several lengths of string), and typically involving an hour or so per week for two or three weeks. It could form part of a national curriculum case study in Key Stage 3 or 4 to use mathematics to solve problems, or as an open ended mathematical investigation.
The results of this major experiment will be announced at an open public talk at the forthcoming British Science Festival hosted at Aston University in September 2010. If you are interested, please register by contacting the Knot Experiment Coordinator, Vicky Bond by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or post (The Knot Experiment, Aston University, Aston Triangle, Birmingham B4 7ET).