W&L’s Elizabeth Denne Featured in New Yorker Article The mathematics professor discusses the differences between various necktie knots.
Elizabeth Denne, professor of mathematics at Washington and Lee University, was quoted in a recent article in The New Yorker: “The Man Who Invented Fifteen Hundred Necktie Knots.”
The article focuses on New York City doorman Boris Mocka and his quest to find new and interesting ways to feature a necktie knot. The variety of knots that exist are studied as knot theory, which falls within the mathematical field of topology. Topology explores the fundamental properties of mathematical objects, one of Denne’s specialties.
The article calls into question the originality of Mocka’s myriad knots and references Cambridge physicists Thomas Fink and Yong Mao’s book, “The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie: The Science and Aesthetics of Tie Knots.” The book catalogs multiple ways to tie a tie.
While exploring the validity of various necktie knot designs, the article cites several noted topologists, including Denne, whose research specialty is in physical knots. Her knot theory exhibit “Taking Shape 2.0” was featured at San Diego’s Fleet Science Center in 2018. The exhibit explored knot theory, topology and geometry.
Denne continues to study the math behind necktie knots. In 2021, she and a pair of W&L students published a journal article focused specifically on the 85 knots referenced in Fink and Mao’s book. In the New Yorker piece, Denne notes the differences in the knots developed by Fink and Mao and ones created by Mocka.
“It is wonderful to see a fun research project with W&L students on necktie knots come to the attention of the general public,” said Denne. “This work shows that deep mathematics can be found in the simplest of objects.”
Denne joined the W&L faculty in 2012 as an assistant professor and was promoted to associate professor in 2015 and professor in 2022. She received a Bachelor of Science in pure mathematics from the University of Sydney and obtained a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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