Iwastheone shares a report from SciTechDaily: MIT mathematicians and engineers have developed a mathematical model that predicts how stable a knot is, based on several key properties, including the number of crossings involved and the direction in which the rope segments twist as the knot is pulled tight. “These subtle differences between knots critically determine whether a knot is strong or not,” says Jorn Dunkel, associate professor of mathematics at MIT. “With this model, you should be able to look at two knots that are almost identical, and be able to say which is the better one.” “Empirical knowledge refined over centuries has crystallized out what the best knots are,” adds Mathias Kolle, the Rockwell International Career Development Associate Professor at MIT. “And now the model shows why.”

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In comparing the diagrams of knots of various strengths, the researchers were able to identify general “counting rules,” or characteristics that determine a knot’s stability. Basically, a knot is stronger if it has more strand crossings, as well as more “twist fluctuations” — changes in the direction of rotation from one strand segment to another. For instance, if a fiber segment is rotated to the left at one crossing and rotated to the right at a neighboring crossing as a knot is pulled tight, this creates a twist fluctuation and thus opposing friction, which adds stability to a knot. If, however, the segment is rotated in the same direction at two neighboring crossing, there is no twist fluctuation, and the strand is more likely to rotate and slip, producing a weaker knot. They also found that a knot can be made stronger if it has more “circulations,” which they define as a region in a knot where two parallel strands loop against each other in opposite directions, like a circular flow.

By taking into account these simple counting rules, the team was able to explain why a reef knot, for instance, is stronger than a granny knot. While the two are almost identical, the reef knot has a higher number of twist fluctuations, making it a more stable configuration. Likewise, the zeppelin knot, because of its slightly higher circulations and twist fluctuations, is stronger, though possibly harder to untie, than the Alpine butterfly — a knot that is commonly used in climbing. The findings have been published in the journal Science.