8 Topological Knots they Tragically Stopped Teaching in the Boy Scouts of America

Nothing is more Boy Scouts of America (BSA) than tying knots. Sadly though, there are many fundamentally important topological knots that they just don’t teach the kids anymore. They’ve boiled down the entire curriculum to basic square knots, hitches, bowlines and lashings. Tragically, this horrendous lack of understanding of knot theory has left many of America’s youth totally unprepared for the heavily abstract field of topology and knot theory! Talk to any scout and the most they’ll know is that topologically, a coffee cup is a donut. Yeah, we’ve all heard that old Homeomorphism joke and it stopped being funny years ago! Here are some of these fundamental topological knots that our young kids are missing out on!

1. The Unknot

Young Boy Scouts gather round a freshly untied unknot at the 1948 Jamboree
Young Boy Scouts gather round a freshly untied unknot at the 1948 Jamboree

Stating that it has “Absolutely no practical use outside of mathematical theory” the BSA stopped teaching about the Unknot back in 1982. For my younger readers, the Unknot is the least knotted of all knots. If only our kids knew their fundamentals they’d be able to Reidemeister move their headphones into an unknot instead of complaining and spending a hundred dollars on air pods!

2. Stevedore Knots

Class of scouts in troop 823 learning how to tie a Stevedore Knots from a life scout (1956: colorized)
Class of scouts in troop 823 learning how to tie a Stevedore Knots from a life scout (1956: colorized)

I can’t count the number of times, I asked my son to tie a Stevedore knot only to watch him look at me with a blank stare! When I was a kid, we used to use the Stevedore knot for everything. Okay, this is topological knot basics. We used it to tie up weather rocks, hitch down gear on your backpack or even tighten a rolled up sleeping pad. It was the easiest knot to tie that was not only invertible but not amphichiral! I couldn’t believe it when I looked through his scout manual and couldn’t find it anywhere. What are they even teaching our kids these days?

3. Knot Sums

Scout Master Presenting a lecture on Connected Summed Knots to his troop in 1963
Scout Master Presenting a lecture on Connected Summed Knots to his troop in 1963

Surprisingly, most scouts today wouldn’t know what to do if you asked them to add two Treifoils together. It’s one of the more advanced knotting theories out there but it’s got tons of uses for abstracting to larger knots for those more complicated camp projects. I remember studying knot addition all night just so I could get my knot arithmetic badge and finally get my Star Scout rank so many decades ago. Now my kids just do a couple service projects and send a letter to their congressman. It’s way easier than it used to be.

4. The 76 Knot

Early scout troop in 1916 lashing together logs for shelter using a  76 prime knot Knot
Early scout troop in 1916 lashing together logs for shelter using a 76 prime knot Knot Image Credit Christian MercatCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the classic prime knots, the 76 knot was great for lashing together logs to make structures. Talk to any scout and they’ll probably have no idea how to tie any knot with seven or more crossings. I think it was the late 90s when the program started to get super soft and only started teaching more practical skills and square lashings. Even though there were easier ways of getting the job done, it’s just not the same when you don’t know the theory behind it all.

5. The 815 Knot

Scouts gathered at an annual knot tying competition tying 815 knots in record time
Scouts gathered at an annual knot tying competition tying 815 knots in record time

Oh, the 815 was always my favorite show topological knot. A topological knot classic! We never did find any practical use for it other than hanging it up on the wall. It was such a beautiful and complicated prime knot, we would use it to show off our skills. I always placed in the timed 815 tying event at all of the scout jamborees and summer camps. If you were good, you could tie one in under thirty seconds. Now my kids just want to play the Zelda game!

6. Unknotting in 4d

Group of scouts untie a knot mesh [colorized] in the 4th Dimension
Group of scouts untie a knot mesh [colorized] in the 4th Dimension

Something that always tripped up the best scouts was untying their knots in higher dimensions. It was an incredibly useful skill going into R4 when a knot just didn’t want to untie. Often these scout programs nowadays focus on tying knots so much, they forget to teach the kids how to properly undo their work. Call me old fashioned but I think it’s incredibly important our children get early wholesome exposure to working and visualizing in higher dimensions. Otherwise they’ll turn to higher dimensional visualization using psychedelics like a damn beatnik.

7. A (3,-7)-3D Torus Knot

Scouts tying (3,-7)-Torus Knots at the 1956 Scout Jamboree
Scouts tying (3,-7)-Torus Knots at the 1956 Scout Jamboree: Colorized Torus Knot Credit Michiel SikmaCC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

It may surprise you but in most modern scout troops, if you were to ask a troop to wrap a Torus surface with with the coprime integers 3, and -7, they would have no idea what you’d be talking about. Back when I was my kids age, we would end every single meeting by practicing our Torus knots until they were perfect! I’m not just being an alarmist boomer, I’m afraid that if we stop teaching our kids how to perfectly wrap around a donut in R3 with perfect rotational symmetry, it would be a slippery slope to greater and greater forms of moral depravity. I’m sorry, I just care a lot.

8. A Borromean Seifert Surface Arm Sling

Three Scouts patching up another feigning an injury with a Borromean Seifert Surface sling
Three Scouts patching up another feigning an injury with a Borromean Seifert Surface sling: Colorized Seifert Surface AccelerometerCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The most tragic crime of the dumbing down of our children is the absence of Seifert Surfaces in basic first aid classes. I’m sorry if this is controversial, but just about everyone can be wrapped up by a Borromean Seifert Surface. I know a lot of people don’t like to talk about this stuff because of the whole body positivity movement and all, but you can’t wrap up a head, arm, and leg injury with a simple Mobius strip or a normal sling! Ya gotta surface some good ole fashioned Borromean rings if you want to stabilize a realistic injury. That’s just medical science! Maybe if the scouts could put down their phones for a second, we could teach them. Dream on right!

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Published by B McGraw

B McGraw has lived a long and successful professional life as a software developer and researcher. After completing his BS in spaghetti coding at the department of the dark arts at Cranberry Lemon in 2005 he wasted no time in getting a masters in debugging by print statement in 2008 and obtaining his PhD with research in screwing up repos on Github in 2014. That's when he could finally get paid. In 2018 B McGraw finally made the big step of defaulting on his student loans and began advancing his career by adding his name on other people's research papers after finding one grammatical mistake in the Peer Review process.

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