Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Experimental Chaos and Complexity Conference grows to include social sciences

The tipping points of phenomena as varied as social uprisings, extreme weather and bacteria colony growth can all be described by similar math. Complex systems theory and nonlinear dynamics are becoming ever more useful tools in far-flung fields of study.


Experimental Chaos and
Complexity Conference

• May 16-19 at Rackham Graduate School.

• For more information on cost and to register, go to the event website.

• A free lecture on bacteria colony growth will take place at 7:30 p.m. May 17 in the Michigan League Ballroom.

More than 200 practitioners will present their latest findings at the upcoming Michigan Meeting.

The Experimental Chaos and Complexity Conference includes a free public talk on how bacteria in colonies survive by killing siblings and changing shape.

Harry Swinney, a physics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, used nonlinear equations to pinpoint when one bacterial colony sensed another nearby and changed its behavior. His team discovered a lethal protein that a particular bacterium secretes to keep neighboring colonies at bay, and that work has led to new research on targeted antibiotics.

“When one colony feels the presence of the other, the whole system starts to change,” Swinney says. “That well-defined point when it goes from one kind of mathematical behavior to another is the bifurcation, and that’s what this whole meeting is about — how changing systems change in a quantitative way that is in some ways universal.”

This is the 12th Experimental Chaos and Complexity Conference and it will be the first to include presentations by social and political scientists. Questions about how decisions, organizational structure and revolutions occur in social systems are ripe for exploration with nonlinear dynamics, conference organizers say.

Most phenomena in the world are nonlinear in nature. That means they are more than the sum of their parts, says Michal Zochowski, a conference organizer and associate professor of physics and biophysics, LSA.

“You can take apart a car engine and know what every piece does, and if you put it back together, you understand how it works. The fact that the whole engine works as a sum of its parts is an example of linear superposition,” Zochowski says.

The brain is a nonlinear system. It’s made of neurons — simple cells that send electrical impulses. But somehow this process gives rise to thoughts and to consciousness, perhaps the ultimate emergent phenomenon.

Researchers are far from being able to mathematically model consciousness. But today they can use nonlinear dynamics to probe some of the workings of the brain. Conference organizer Victoria Booth, an assistant professor of math in LSA and anesthesiology in the Medical School, is exploring the generation of epileptic seizures, for example.

“The goal of this conference is to bring together scientists working in all these different areas who are trying to utilize the same techniques,” Booth says. “The hope is to cross-pollinate ideas about how to understand complexities in all these different systems within a common framework.”

The conference is May 16-19 at Rackham Graduate School. A fee is required. The free public talk, “How bacteria in colonies can survive by killing siblings and reversibly changing shape,” is 7:30 p.m. May 17 in the Michigan League Ballroom.

Michigan Meetings are sponsored by Rackham Graduate School to support interdisciplinary scholarship and conversation on topics of broad interest and contemporary importance to both the public and the academic community.