Madison Chaos and Complex Systems Seminar

Fall 2019 Seminars

All seminars are Tuesday at 12:05 pm in 4274 Chamberlin Hall except as noted. Refreshments will be served.

Short List


September 10, 2019

Do plants feel pain?

Simon Gilroy, UW Department of Biology

When an animal is wounded, a combination of nerve action supported by neurotransmitters rapidly transmits this information throughout the organism. Similarly, in response to herbivory of one leaf, plants trigger pre-emptive defenses in unwounded tissues but in this case there is no nervous system to propagate the information about damage. Using Arabidopsis plants expressing genetically-encoded bio-probes we have visualized the plant-wide dynamics of changes in cellular Ca2+ that trigger system-wide responses to wounding. These rapid (within seconds), long-range (throughout the plant body) changes are disrupted in mutants in the genes for the plant glutamate like receptor channels, homologs of the glutamate receptor channels of the mammalian nervous system. The  patterns of wound signaling can be mimicked by application of the amino acid glutamate (a classic mammalian neurotransmitter). These results suggest that a plant-wide Ca2+ signaling network acts to communicate information about damage throughout the plant body and although plants lack a nervous system, glutamate and glutamate receptor-like channels lie at the core of this long-range plant signaling network.

September 17, 2019

Data and computational advances in the fight against floods

Dan Wright, UW Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Recent decades have seen a substantial increase in the number and severity of rainstorms in Wisconsin and elsewhere. This increase is driven by global warming, and is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Many logically assume that floods are also becoming worse as a result. In this seminar, we’ll see that the story is more complicated. Some human actions have had clear impacts on floods—urbanization, for example, significantly exacerbates flooding, while dams and reservoirs are able to mitigate these risks to some extent. Advances in weather forecasting have reduced flood-related fatalities, but economic growth has greatly increased the overall economic risks from flooding. When it comes to climate change impacts on floods, the story is complex and not well understood. The reason for this is that floods are “recipes” that consist of multiple ingredients—not just rain but also land cover, soil moisture, snow, and river properties. We will discuss what we know and don’t know about how these ingredients are changing, and see several recent examples of how new data and tools can be brought to bear to understand the complex relationships between rainfall, floods, and how they are co-evolving in a changing Wisconsin.

September 24, 2019

How solar energy became cheap: A model for low-carbon innovation

Greg Nemet, La Follett School of Public Affairs

La Follette School Professor Greg Nemet will discuss how solar energy became inexpensive and how that path can serve as a model for other low-carbon technologies. However, other technologies would have to progress much faster than solar energy to be helpful for climate change.

October 1, 2019

The poetry of chaos

Robin Chapman, UW Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders 

I have been writing poetry on the nonlinear, dynamic aspects of life, climate change, and our discussions of chaos for the past twenty years and will read selected work, including poems from my recently published book The Only Home We Know (Tebot Bach, 2019)

October 8, 2019

Beer, biofuels, and beyond: yeast biodiversity in the era of genomics

Chris Hittinger, UW Department of Genetics

Here, I will present a general audience lecture on yeast biodiversity in the age of genomics. Topics will include beer, biofuels, and other fermentation products, as well as new approaches in synthetic biology.

October 15, 2019

Lake Michigan water-level changes and their impacts on shorelines and shoreline property owners

Dave Mickelson, UW Department of Geology

The Great Lakes are close to or exceeding record high lake levels. A major concern along many Great Lakes shorelines is what is happening now and what might happen in the future to beaches, and bluffs above the beach. In response to nearshore and beach erosion at the base of the bluff under high lake-level conditions, the lower part of the bluff steepens and becomes more unstable. This instability typically migrates up the bluff face through time and the position of the bluff top eventually recedes, threatening any structures that have been built on the bluff top. I will discuss a qualitative comparison of 2007 and 2018 low-level oblique airphotos of the shoreline from Door County to the Illinois State Line. A primary aim of this study was to evaluate changes on the beach and lower bluff that might predict the likelihood of future bluff-top recession.

October 22, 2019

A brief history of the soul from antiquity to integrated information theory

Peter Sobol, Wisconsin Public Media

The current interest in the nature of consciousness is only the latest episode in the long history of the Western world's efforts to understand awareness and intelligence. This talk will touch on the philosophical, medical, and religious problems that these efforts have encountered and will conclude with a survey of several different responses from contemporary philosophers and scientists to this still unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question.

October 29, 2019

The role of auditory hair cells in frequency discrimination

Robert Fettiplace, UW Department of Neuroscience

Hair cells, the sensory receptors of the vertebrate inner ear, convert incident sound stimuli into electrical signals. They also separate the sound frequency components along the cochlea behaving like an acoustic prism. Frequency analysis underlies the ability to identify environmental sounds and categorize conspecific calls, and is implemented by two distinct mechanisms.  In all vertebrates except mammals, the hair cell receptor potential is electrically tuned by voltage-dependent membrane ion channels, but this process has a limited upper frequency range of a few kHz. In mammals, broad mechanical tuning is augmented by contractions of outer hair cells, underpinned by the piezoelectric protein prestin.  Both mechanisms are supported by gradients in hair cell properties along the cochlea.  Examples of such gradients include the numbers and types of voltage-dependent potassium channel and of the mechanically-sensitive transducer channel. An important clinical correlate is that hair cells tuned to high frequencies are much more vulnerable to damage by noise and ototoxic agents, and are the first to be lost with aging.

November 5, 2019

A Tiny Earth, global crises

Sarah Miller, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery

Tiny Earth is a network of instructors and students focused on crowdsourcing antibiotic discovery from soil. The network aims to (1) inspire students to pursue careers in science through original research conducted in introductory courses with the potential for global impact, and (2) address two worldwide threats -- the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics and the soil erosion crisis. Each year, nearly 10,000 students implement Tiny Earth across 44 states, Puerto Rico, Washington DC, and 19 countries. In this seminar, learn about the importance of these threats and the studentsourcing approach.

November 12, 2019

Transits and life

Jaime Cordova, UW Department of Genetics

On November 11, 2019 a transit of Mercury will occur. The transit will be visible from Madison at sunrise (6:44AM) shortly after the start of the transit. This is the last transit of an inner planet until 2032. However, transits are used frequently outside of our solar system in the search for exoplanets. These exoplanets are places where life may exist. This presentation will focus on the science behind transits, the search for exoplanets, and the search for life beyond Earth.

November 19, 2019

Will global precipitation trends be observable in our lifetime?

Tristan L'Ecuyer, UW Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences

Simple energy balance arguments indicate that warming from human activities is likely to cause an increase in worldwide precipitation but it is very unlikely that these changes will be felt uniformly around the globe. Climate models indicate, for example, that in a warmer climate “the wet will get wetter and the dry will get drier” – in other words, rainfall is expected to increase in areas that already receive above average rainfall while arid regions may become even drier.  Most predictive models also suggest that, as global temperatures rise, the frequency and amount of snowfall in the middle latitudes (where a large fraction of the world’s population resides) will decrease, impacting water availability in areas that depend critically on runoff from winter snow packs. These changes could have significant (and often undesirable) consequences that may require substantial investment to mitigate but developing cost-effective strategies for coping with changing global precipitation patterns must be based on reliable forecasts.  Given the transient nature of precipitation, however, evaluating precipitation changes in climate models using the snapshots provided by Earth-observing satellites is a very challenging problem.  This presentation will outline a robust statistical method for assessing how long it will take for predicted rain and snowfall trends to emerge from natural year-to-year variations and, therefore, become testable with satellite data records. Utilizing this new strategy, we will reveal a surprisingly robust climate change metric that may be observable by the middle of the next decade.

November 26, 2019

On the road to sustainable production of fuels and chemicals from biomass

Tim Donohue, UW Department of Bacteriology

I will review the challenge(s) of meeting society’s energy needs and highlight how UW-Madison, as a Land Grant institution, the Wisconsin Energy Institute, and Great Lakes Bioenergy are addressing this challenge.

December 3, 2019

A case study of bacterial pathogen emergence: Staphylococcus saprophyticus

Caitlin Pepperell, UW Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology

Where do pathogens come from? Microbes are all around us, but infectious diseases arise from a tiny fraction of these diverse organisms. Research in my lab is aimed at uncovering the origin stories of pathogenic bacteria: the where, when, how and why of infectious disease emergence. Bacteria occupy incredibly diverse niches and adapt by a multiplicity of mechanisms. Pathogen origin stories reflect this ecological and evolutionary diversity, with our work and others’ showing that there are numerous paths to virulence. This presentation focuses on the origin story of a pathogen I started working on by accident, Staphylococcus saprophyticus. S. saprophyticus, which infects humans and animals, is able to move fluidly among diverse environments. This bacterium illustrates the intertwined ecologies of humans, animals, and the natural and built environments we share. In this presentation, I will share what we have learned about how S. saprophyticus evolved to cause disease.