Wheel? I think knot!

Once again an awful title. This post follows my previous one on graphs and chemistry, and it addresses an old idea which I have shared in the past with many patient people willing to listen to my ramblings.

It is a common conception/place to state that the wheel was the invention that made mankind spring from its more hominid ancestors into the incipient species that would eventually become homo sapiens; that it was the wheel, like no other prehistoric invention or discovery, what made mankind to rise from its primitive stage. I’ve always believed that even if the wheel was fundamental in the development of mankind, man first had to build tools to make wheels out of something; otherwise they would have been just a good theoretical conception.

But even despite the fact that building tools was in itself a pretty damn good start, I strongly believe that mankind’s first groundbreaking invention were knots. For even a wheel was a bit useless until it was tied to something. From my perspective, the invention of the wheel was an event bound to happen since there are many round shaped things in nature: from the sun and the moon to some fruits and our own eyes. Achieving the mental maturity of taking a string (or a resembling equivalent of those days) and tie it, whether around itself or to something, was, in my opinion, the moment in which the opposable thumbs of mankind realized they could transform it’s surroundings. Furthermore, at that stage the mental maturity achieved made it possible for man to remember how to do it over again in a consistent way.

The book ‘2001 – a space odissey’ by A. C. Clarke, describes this process in the first chapter when a group of hominids bumps into the famous monolith. Their leader (i think his name was moonlight), under the spell of this strangely straight and flat thing takes two pieces of grass and ties them together without knowing or understanding what he is doing. I was pleased to read that I was not alone in that thought.

The concept of a knot keeps on amazing me given their variety and the different purposes they serve according to their properties. These were known to ancient sailors who have elevated the task of knot-making to a practical art form. The mathematical background behind them has served to lay one of today’s most fundamental (and controversial) theories about the composition of matter: string theory. Next time when you make the knot of your necktie think about this tedious, obnoxious little habit was based on something groundbreaking that truly makes us stand out from the rest of the species in the animal kingdom.

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About joaquinbarroso

Theoretical chemist in his late thirties, in love with life and deeply in love with his woman and children. I love science, baseball, literature, movies (perhaps even in that order). I'm passionate about food and lately wines have become a major hobby. In a nutshell I'm filled with regrets but also with hope, and that is called "living".

Posted on June 24, 2009, in Books, Mathematics, Random thoughts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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