Lecture unties “knot theory”

As students travel from class to class, it is often hard for them to see how the practices and theories they learn can be applied to the real world.

However, University of Illinois professor Louis Kauffman showed an audience of about two hundred people in the BioSciences Auditorium how a mathematical theory can be applied to DNA research on Thursday night.

Knot theory is the study of knots and the mathematical rules that can be used to explain why a shape is or isn’t a knot and how to untangle it. When used on a coil of DNA strands, it can help researchers see how the strands fit together and the effects enzymes have when they react with the strands.

Kauffman explained how DNA strands can make coils. He took a piece of blue rope and twisted it tightly, then let out the slack and reduced it to a coil.

Kauffman then repeated the process a few more times to show how a long strand of rope can become a small, tightly packed coil.

“You can pack a very long thing like a molecule into a very small space like this,” Kauffman said.

Kauffman used simple knot and magic tricks to demonstrate how the mathematical theories work in physical space, and then he moved on to graphics and complex computer programs to show how mathematicians and scientists use knots to prove their theories.

With DNA, Kauffman explained how the strands become coils and supercoils, which are broken and transformed by enzymes to make more DNA molecules.

“This is the basic explanation of how DNA reproduces, but no one knows the complete details,” Kauffman said.

The lecture was held by the mathematics department as part of the R. Kent Nagle Lecture Series. Kauffman said he thought it would be interesting to speak in a college setting.

“I more often speak and present papers at meetings,” Kauffman said. “It was fun to talk to a general audience.”

USF student Marty Findley thought Kauffman did a good job presenting the information to the audience.

“I thought it would be heavily technical, but it was easily accessible,” Findley said.

Findley’s professor cancelled his class so that students would be able to attend the lecture.

Thomas Bieske, an assistant math professor, also thought that Kauffman made the information easily understandable.

“His demonstrations and use of audio-visual equipment enabled his audience to understand the topic without the use of delving into deeper math,” Bieske said.Bieske said he understood what Kauffman was saying even though the knot theory isn’t part of his field.

Andrew Purcell especially enjoyed the rope tricks Kauffman performed.

“This showed people what math is actually about,” Purcell said.

Purcell and Bieske both complained about most people’s perception of mathematicians. They said many people think they spend all day writing equations or solving math problems.

Kauffman said while he was exposed to some knot theory in magazines when he was young, he really became intrigued with it during his graduate studies at Princeton. He’s especially interested in studying how the knot theory relates to a variety of subjects.

“I’m a little obsessed with the way it relates to other things,” Kauffman said.