A rack is a set equipped with a binary operation satisfying axioms analogous to the second and third Reidemeister moves in knot theory. The most commonly appearing racks in nature are quandles, which satisfy an additional axiom analogous to the first Reidemeister move.

While mainly used to obtain invariants of framed knots, racks are interesting algebraic structures in their own right: they capture the idea of an algebraic structure where every element acts as an automorphism of that structure.


A rack may be defined as a set RR with a binary operation \triangleright such that for every a,b,cRa, b, c \in R the self-distributive law holds:

a(bc)=(ab)(ac)a \triangleright (b \triangleright c) = (a \triangleright b)\triangleright (a \triangleright c)

and for every a,bRa,b \in R there exists a unique cRc \in R such that

ac=ba \triangleright c = b

This definition, while terse and commonly used, is suboptimal for certain purposes because it contains an existential quantifier which is not really necessary. To avoid this, we may write the unique cRc \in R such that ac=ba \triangleright c = b as bab \triangleleft a. We then have

ac=bc=ba a \triangleright c = b \iff c = b \triangleleft a

and thus

a(ba)=b a \triangleright (b \triangleleft a) = b


(ab)a=b(a \triangleright b) \triangleleft a = b

Using this idea, a rack may be equivalently defined as a set RR with two binary operations \triangleright and \triangleleft such that for all a,b,cRa, b, c \in R:

(1)a(bc)=(ab)(ac) a \triangleright (b \triangleright c) = (a \triangleright b)\triangleright (a \triangleright c)
(2)(cb)a=(ca)(ba) (c \triangleleft b) \triangleleft a = (c \triangleleft a)\triangleleft (b \triangleleft a)
(3)(ab)a=b (a \triangleright b)\triangleleft a = b
(4)a(ba)=a a \triangleright (b \triangleleft a) = a

It is convenient to say that the element aRa \in R is acting from the left in the expression aba \triangleright b, and acting from the right in the expression bab \triangleleft a. The third and fourth rack axioms then say that these left and right actions are inverses of each other. Using this, we can eliminate either one of these actions from the definition of rack. If we eliminate the right action and keep the left one, we obtain the terse definition given initially. However, the longer definition makes it clear that racks are algebras of Lawvere theory.

Notations and Conventions

Many different conventions are used in the literature on racks and quandles. For example, many authors prefer to work with just the right action. Furthermore, the use of the symbols \triangleright and \triangleleft is by no means universal: many authors use exponential notation

ab= ab a \triangleright b = {}^a b


ba=b a b \triangleleft a = b^{a}

while many others write

ba=ba b \triangleleft a = b \star a

We may equivalently define a rack in the following more conceptual manner: it is a set where each element acts on the left and right as automorphisms of the rack, with the left action being the inverse of the right one. In this definition, the fact that each element acts as automorphisms encodes the left and right self-distributivity laws, and also these laws:

a(bc)=(ab)(ac) a \triangleright (b \triangleleft c) = (a \triangleright b)\triangleleft (a \triangleright c)
(cb)a=(ca)(ba)(c \triangleright b) \triangleleft a = (c \triangleleft a)\triangleright (b \triangleleft a)

which are consequences of the definition(s) given earlier.

Even simpler than a rack is a shelf. A set with a binary operation \triangleright obeying the left self-distributive law

a(bc)=(ab)(ac) a \triangleright (b \triangleright c) = (a \triangleright b)\triangleright (a \triangleright c)

is called a left shelf, and similarly a set with a binary operation \triangleleft obeying the right self-distributive law is called a right shelf.

A unital left shelf is the same as a graphic monoid: for a proof see graphic category.


  • Gavin Wraith, A personal story about knots.

  • Wikipedia, Racks and quandles

  • Colin Rourke, Roger Fenn, (1992). Racks and links in codimension 2. J. Knot Theory and Its Ramifications 1 (4): 343–406.

  • Roger Fenn, Colin Rourke, Brian Sanderson, Trunks and classifying spaces, Appl. Categ. Structures 3 (1995), no. 4, 321–356 MR1364012doi; The rack space, Trans. Amer. Math. Soc. 359 (2007), no. 2, 701–740 MR2255194

  • Sam Nelson, Quandle theory.

  • J. Scott Carter, A survey of quandle ideas, arXiv.

  • Seiichi Kamada, Knot invariants derived from quandles and racks, arXiv.

  • Alissa Crans, Shelves, racks, spindles and quandles, arXiv, in Lie 2-Algebras, p. 56.

The last reference makes it clear that racks are algebras of a Lawvere theory, so that racks may be defined in any cartesian monoidal category (a category with finite products).

  • Nicolás Andruskiewitsch, Matiás Grañab, From racks to pointed Hopf algebras, Adv. Math. 178(2):177–243 (2003, arxiv (doi)

A generalization of Lie integration to conjectural Leibniz groups has been conjectured by J-L. Loday. A local version via local Lie racks has been proposed in

  • Simon Covez, The local integration of Leibniz algebras, arXiv; On the conjectural cohomology for groups, arXiv; L’intégration locale des algèbres de Leibniz, Thesis (2010), pdf

There are also crossed modules for racks:

  • Alissa S. Crans, Friedrich Wagemann, Crossed modules of racks, arXiv

Revised on June 4, 2015 15:52:10 by John Baez (