Conversations in Science Series
A program conceived and organized by the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with the collaboration of the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Edgewood Sonderegger Science Center.

Thursday, October 9, 2008 at 4:00 p.m.
LOCATION: Sonderegger Science Center (Click here for parking information)
1000 Edgewood College Drive Madison, Wisconsin

Professor Clint Sprott
Department of Physics

“Self-Organization—Nature’s Intelligent Design”

The Conversations in Science series brings together UW-Madison science researchers and Dane County science teachers. Designed to stimulate discussion between scientists and science educators at all levels, these conversations connect high-, middle-, and elementary school classrooms with the University's cutting-edge research. Questions and ideas are freely exchanged between expert and an audience of K-12 educators.


Complex patterns are common throughout nature, from the distribution of the galaxies in the Universe to the organization of neurons in the human brain. It is generally assumed that such complex structure must have a complex cause, but it may be that the patterns spontaneously arise through the repeated application of simple rules. This talk will provide examples of self-organization in nature and will describe six simple computer models that can replicate the features of these patterns. The models typically produce fractal spatial structure and chaotic temporal dynamics characterized by power laws and unpredictability, even when the models are simple and purely deterministic. The work has application to fields as diverse as physics, ecology, political science, economics, sociology, and art.


Julien Clinton Sprott, born September 16, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee, received his B.S. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964 and his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1969. He worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for several years before returning to the University of Wisconsin in 1973, as Professor of Physics. In 2008 he became professor emeritus.

His research has been primarily in the area of experimental plasma physics and controlled nuclear fusion. In 1989 his interests turned to nonlinear dynamics, chaos, fractals, and complexity. He has authored or coauthored over 300 scientific papers in these and related fields.

Professor Sprott has written a number of books, including "Introduction to Modern Electronics", "Numerical Recipes and Examples in BASIC," "Strange Attractors: Creating Patterns in Chaos," "Chaos and Time-series Analysis," "Images of a Complex World: The Art and Poetry of Chaos," and "Physics Demonstrations: A Sourcebook for Teachers of Physics." He has produced dozens of educational videos and has given his popular presentation of "The Wonders of Physics" over 200 times to a total audience of over 60,000. He has produced several commercial educational software programs, one of which won the first annual "Computers in Physics" award for innovative software in physics education.

He received the John Glover Award from Dickinson College, the Van Hise Outreach Award for Excellence in Teaching from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Association of Physics Teachers for his work in public science education. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of Sigma Xi, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the New England Complex Systems Institute, and the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences.

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