The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider

More knot coloring

Two weeks ago I went over how to color knots with three colors. Of course, being mathematicians, we want to generalize the hell out of this.

Really, as is often the case with this sort of thing, “color” is just a metaphor. We labeled each arc of a diagram with one element of a set with three elements and put a condition on the labels attached to the arcs at each crossing. So, what sets do we know of with three elements. I’ll give you some time to think.

Back? Did you come up with “the abelian group \mathbb{Z}_3“? If so, great. If not, this is one of the first examples of groups I mentioned waaaaaay back in January. Basically, it’s made of the numbers in the set \{0,1,2\}. We add and subtract as usual, but we loop around from 2 to {}0. For example, 2+2=1 and 0-1=2.

So let’s imagine we’re “coloring” a knot with \mathbb{Z}_3. What’s the condition at a crossing? Imagine we’ve got an overcrossing arc colored a, and we approach it along an undercrossing arc colored b. If a=b then we have two arcs of the same color, and we have to leave along an arc with the same color. On the other hand, if a\neq b we have to use the third color. So how do we recognize the third color? It turns out that there’s an easy way to do this: the third color is 2a-b. In fact, this also works if a=b. Try writing down all nine combinations of a and b and seeing that 2a-b is always a valid coloring for the third arc.

Now there’s nothing in our notion of coloring that relies on the number 3. All we’re really using in this new condition is the fact that we have an abelian group. So take your favorite abelian group G and try coloring knots with it, requiring that if an arc colored b undercrosses an arc colored a, it comes out the other side colored 2a-b.

Does this new form of G-coloring depend on the knot diagram we use, or only on the knot. Well, it turns out just to depend on the knot. To show this, we again use Reidemeister moves.

First Reidemeister Move (G-colored)
Second Reidemeister Move (G-colored)
Third Reidemeister Move (G-colored)

In each of these, I’ve colored some of the end and worked across the diagram seeing what I’m required to color the other edges. In the first move, for example, if I color the top of the left a, the bottom will also get a. If I color the top of the right a, the arc crosses under itself so the bottom must be colored 2a-a. But we see that 2a-a=a, so this is the same end coloring. The same sort of argument works for the second and third moves.

So for every abelian group G, we have an invariant: the number of ways of G-coloring the arcs of any diagram of the knot. The colorings we did the last time were \mathbb{Z}_3-colorings.

But why does this rule work so well? It turns out that we’re not interested in G as an abelian group. We take the underlying set of G and equip it with the operation a\triangleright b=2a-b. This makes G into an involutory quandle, called the “dihedral quandle” of G. The name comes from the fact that b\mapsto2a-b is like “reflection through a“, and such reflections generate all symmetries of regular polygons in the plane. A polygon in the plane, of course, is a sort of degenerate polyhedron in space with only two sides: “dihedron”.

Anyhow, recall the axioms for an involutory quandle:

  • a\triangleright a=a
  • a\triangleright(a\triangleright b)=b
  • a\triangleright(b\triangleright c)=(a\triangleright b)\triangleright(a\triangleright c)

First check that these axioms really do hold for the operation we defined on G. Then imagine using any other involutory quandle Q to color knots. Go back to the Reidemeister diagrams and do just what we did for G-coloring, but use the quandle operation instead: if an arc colored b undercrosses one colored a, it leaves colored a\triangleright b. Show that the number of Q-colorings is an invariant of the knot, not just of its diagrams.

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May 2, 2007 - Posted by | Knot theory

10 Comments »

  1. [...] move on to More knot coloring by John Armstrong that extends the concept of knot colorings to arbitrary involutory quandles. Wow [...]

    Pingback by Carnival of Mathematics Edition #6 at nOnoscience | May 4, 2007 | Reply

  2. [...] move on to More knot coloring by John Armstrong that extends the concept of knot colorings to arbitrary involutory quandles. Wow [...]

    Pingback by Carnival of Mathematics Edition #7 at nOnoscience | May 4, 2007 | Reply

  3. You don’t need the quandle to be involutory to color knots and obtain an invariant. Just change the second axiom by “the operation b |–> a*b is a bijection for all a” and you get a quandle suitable for coloring as well.

    Comment by Matias | May 14, 2007 | Reply

  4. You’re right, though I’m currently just considering involutory quandles in the context of this approach.

    Comment by John Armstrong | May 14, 2007 | Reply

  5. [...] Fundamental Involutory Quandle As I discussed last time, coloring a knot with any abelian group is secretly using the dihedral quandle associated to that [...]

    Pingback by The Fundamental Involutory Quandle « The Unapologetic Mathematician | May 16, 2007 | Reply

  6. How do you get that 2a-b is the third coloring?

    Comment by Miguel | December 19, 2007 | Reply

  7. Miguel, you mean in the two diagrams for the third Reidemeister move? On both sides, a strand colored b passes under a strand colored a, and comes out colored 2a-b. On the left it’s done, but on the right it goes on to cross over another strand. Since overcrossing strands keep their same colors, this doesn’t change anything.

    Comment by John Armstrong | December 19, 2007 | Reply

  8. [...] move on to More knot coloring by John Armstrong that extends the concept of knot colorings to arbitrary involutory quandles. Wow [...]

    Pingback by Philosophia Inconsequentia » Blog Archive » Carnival of Mathematics Edition #7 | February 4, 2008 | Reply

  9. [...] move on to More knot coloring by John Armstrong that extends the concept of knot colorings to arbitrary involutory quandles. Wow [...]

    Pingback by Carnival of Mathematics Edition #7 « Unruled Notebook | November 2, 2008 | Reply

  10. [...] for the other arrow directions and orders of visiting the segments. The diagram comes from this article in John Armstrong’s blog “The Unapologetic Mathematician” which we keep in our [...]

    Pingback by What Makes a Knot Knotty? « Gödel’s Lost Letter and P=NP | January 13, 2012 | Reply


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