Smallest and tightest knot ever tied is made of just 54 atoms
Whether it was in your shoelaces or earbud cables, we’ve all accidentally tied knots that we can’t untangle – but we don’t expect to win any world records with them. Now scientists have done exactly that, accidentally tying the world’s smallest and tightest knot in a tiny structure made of just 54 atoms.
The researchers were producing chemical reactions to create small gold chains, when one reaction went wrong and created a chain that spontaneously tied itself into a trefoil knot. This three-looped knot resembles a pretzel, except with the loose ends fused together.
On closer inspection, this unintended knot actually picked up two world records. Since it contained only 54 atoms, it’s the smallest knot ever, beating out the previous record-holder of 69 atoms set (on purpose, we might add) in 2020. This new knot was also the tightest ever tied – this is measured as the backbone crossing ratio (BCR), with smaller figures indicating tighter knots. The new knot achieved a BCR of 23, just pipping the 24 of the previous tightest knot.
Most of us don’t really think about knots a lot, but there’s a whole branch of mathematics devoted to them called knot theory. Studying them isn’t just about finding more efficient ways to tie your shoes – they can help us explain things as extreme as why the universe is three-dimensional, or more practically, how DNA and proteins naturally tie themselves into knots. In the latter case, we could learn to make better drugs, chemicals and materials.
For now, the researchers hypothesize that smaller knots made of just 49 atoms could be possible using the same structure. Whether or not even smaller knots are possible remains to be seen.
The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.