We initiate the study of classical knots through the homotopy class of the nth evaluation map of the knot, which is the induced map on the compactified n-point configuration space. Sending a knot to its nth evaluation map realizes the space of knots as a subspace of what we call the nth mapping space model for knots. We compute the homotopy types of the first three mapping space models, showing that the third model gives rise to an integer-valued invariant. We realize this invariant in two ways, in terms of collinearities of three or four points on the knot, and give some explicit computations. We show this invariant coincides with the second coefficient of the Conway polynomial, thus giving a new geometric definition of the simplest finite-type invariant. Finally, using this geometric definition, we give some new applications of this invariant relating to quadrisecants in the knot and to complexity of polygonal and polynomial realizations of a knot. © 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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