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Unknotting Unknots

Allison Henrich and Louis H. Kauffman
The American Mathematical Monthly
Vol. 121, No. 5 (May 2014), pp. 379-390
DOI: 10.4169/amer.math.monthly.121.05.379
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Page Count: 12
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Unknotting Unknots
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Abstract A knot is an embedding of a circle into three-dimensional space. We say that a knot is unknotted if there is an ambient isotopy of the embedding to a standard circle. In essence, an unknot is a knot that may be deformed to a standard circle without passing through itself. By representing knots via planar diagrams, we discuss the problem of unknotting a knot diagram when we know that it is unknotted. This problem is surprisingly difficult, since it has been shown that knot diagrams may need to be made more complicated before they may be simplified. We do not yet know, however, how much more complicated they must get. We give an introduction to the work of Dynnikov, who discovered the key use of arc-presentations to solve the problem of finding a way to detect the unknot directly from a diagram of the knot. Using Dynnikov’s work, we show how to obtain a quadratic upper bound for the number of crossings that must be introduced into a sequence of unknotting moves. We also apply Dynnikov’s results to find an upper bound for the number of moves required in an unknotting sequence.

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