This is originally from John Conway but came to me through
Tom Davis (in fact, must of this
writeup is “stolen” from Tom’s work: ). The idea is to associate a rational
number to a tangle
of two ropes by performing a sequence of two simple operations. Similarly, we
can untangle these
ropes using these same two simple operations. Hopefully along the way the
students will even get
some practice with fractions .
2 Getting started
1. Nice heavy ropes about 10 feet long are about right (I use climbing straps
purchased at a
store like REI).
2. 2-3 plastic grocery bags.
Have four students (A, B, C, D) and have them hold two ropes as in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Initial State
Every one needs to hold the ropes firmly. Students like the
shake the ropes and everything will
have to be redone if a student drops a rope. Do not al low the kids jerk on the
ropes. Generally, try
to keep a handle on the sil liness that will result from the ropes. It is a good
idea to swap kids out
periodically from time to time as well.
3 The basic operations
There are two basic operations: Twist and Rotate. To
twist, student D walks under the rope that
student C is holding. This is the only twisting move that is allowed. There is
no “untwist” move
(that would undo the twist). See Figure 2 to see the result of 0, 1, 2, and 3
To rotate, students all rotate one position clockwise, as in Figure 3.
Figure 2: Twisting
Figure 3: Rotating
We do not actually care about what position the students
are in. What we care about is the
position of the ropes. So, in Figure 3 the first and third positions are the
same (even though the
ropes have actually changed places ). Similarly, the second and fourth positions
are considered the
In describing a sequence of moves, we will write “T” for
twist and “R” for rotate.
Finally, there is the display ope ration where the 4
students hold the twisted rope up for all to
We will write a sequence of moves by writing something
like TTRT to mean twist, twist, rotate
and then twist, in that order .
One goal is to associate a number to each tangle. Here are
a couple “ rules ” to get us started to
de termine how to do this.
• The starting position is given the number 0.
• Each time a twist is done, the number increases by 1 (so the number is an
attempt to measure
the number of twists made).
1. What mathematical operation is R ? Start at 1 (by doing ). Then perform two
rotates and end back at 1:
What mathematical operations can do this? Try the
following and determine what numbers
belong at the question marks:
2. How do you get back to zero ? Here our goal is to start with a tangle and get it back to the 0-tangle. So,
start with a tangle
and try to untangle it. See if you can find a way to do this. Along the way you
that doing two rotates in a row is not productive .
A good starting point is the tangle TTRTTTRT represented
by 3/5 . This is good because the numerator and denominator are relatively small but still complicated enough.
• Doing a twist to 3/5 only moves the tangle further away
from 0, so perhaps a rotate is
• At this point the only reasonable move is a twist since
another rotate will undo the
• Now, a RT moves you further from 0, so it makes sense to
• Now, we just keep doing this
So, what is the procedure and is it guaranteed to work?
3. Infinity Try this:
What number must belong at the question mark?
4. GCD: GreatestCommon Divisor There is the Euclidean algorithm for computing GCD. Here it is for the GCD
of 4004 and