Madison Chaos and Complex Systems Seminar

Spring 2019 Seminars

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

Short List
Join us for lunch during the summer on the Memorial Union Terrace at noon each Tuesday, starting May 7th!


January 22, 2019

Order and simplicity in the 2018 elections

Barry Burden, UW Department of Political Science

To the casual observer, U.S. elections often appear to be the result of an unpredictable process driven by personalities and chance events. Although each election cycle has unique elements, I suggest that results are in fact highly predictable and reflect contextual variables in place well before election. The 2018 midterm elections in particular were the result of the well-established "cost of governing" phenomenon and structural biases in legislative districts in Wisconsin and the country.

January 29, 2019

Screening for “normal” genetic variants:  Using survey data to inform precision medicine

Marsha Mailick, Waisman Center

This talk will begin with the gene that causes a rare genetic disease, and consider how variants in this gene affect all of us.  The rare genetic disease is Fragile X Syndrome, which affects 1 in 5000 births and is caused by a mutation in the FMR1 gene on the X chromosome.  This gene is critically important for brain development and functioning throughout the lifespan.  Although it is rare, Fragile X Syndrome is the most common inherited cause of intellectual disability and also the most common genetic cause of autism.  Besides the “full mutation” that causes Fragile X Syndrome, variants in the FMR1 gene have been implicated in other health conditions.  These gene variants are familial, passed from one generation to the next, and thus there are family-wide implications for reproductive decision making and parenting.  However, until recently, the data were all derived from clinical patient groups, and thus, there is considerable ascertainment bias and uncertainty in generalizing to the full population.

For the past decade, we have been studying the full range of FMR1 gene variations in both clinical patient groups and through population survey data.  By cross-referencing data from both sources, we have been able to advance understanding of the impacts of what previously were believed to be normal variants of FMR1, but which actually have consequences for human health.  In this era of precision or personalized medicine, understanding the implications of such variants can inform the health care we receive, but only if such variants are screened for and understood.

February 5, 2019

The changing context for the social sciences -- and especially for social and behavioral science research

Cora Marrett, UW Department of Sociology 

These thoughts have been stimulated of late by a Task Force on which I serve for the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).  The Task Force has been examining the changing -- and increasingly complex ecosystem -- in which the social sciences operate.  At a roll-out of our report, we noted the challenges the changes pose and potential responses to them.

The Task Force is not the only development prompting my interest in the topic.  Changes and challenges dominate the agenda as well of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Education (DBASSE) at the National Academies, on whose Advisory Committee I sit.  Significantly,  my service as the inaugural head for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences(SBE) at NSF clearly prompted me to attend to developments across these fields, related especially to research and policy making.  My time as Deputy Director at NSF (and two stints during that time as Acting Director) enabled me to see beyond these fields to activities affecting and affected by science and engineering writ large.

February 12, 2019

Books build better brains: How promoting literacy is key to early brain and child development

Dipesh Navsaria, UW Department of Pediatrics

Dr Navsaria will discuss the critical importance of the first thousand days of life and the key role human relationships and interactions play in that time period, along with concepts of toxic stress and how early adversity leads to lifelong issues.  The importance of early literacy, along with key concepts about literacy development will be reviewed.  The structure and concept behind the Reach Out and Read program (which provides early literacy promotion) will be discussed in this context as a workable approach for busy primary-care medical settings.

February 19, 2019

Taming the energy of stars

John Sarff, UW Department of Physics

Nuclear fusion is one of the most important processes in the Universe. It caused the creation of the elements that form the Earth, and it continues to stir the evolution of matter. As a terrestrial energy source, it could forever supply the world's growing energy needs with reduced environmental impact. Despite decades of research, fusion power plants do not yet exist. This talk will provide an overview of the status and some of the basic challenges for terrestrial fusion power.

February 26, 2019

Our changing National climate: Vulnerabilities to adaptations

John Young, Wisconsin State Climatology Office

The results of a national climate assessment are released at four-year intervals. They represent analyses of extensive weather and climate data. The first scientific analyses for the US and its specific climate regions was released in November 2017, and the most recent one addresses the impact of specific changes and attendant risks and adaptation challenges.

I will explain some highlights of the findings, with illustrations from trends in average seasonal  climate and extremes, regional differences, and considerations of future adaptation challenges. 

March 5, 2019

Projecting future floodplains and the impacts to future risks and vulnerabilities in the United States

Shane Hubbard, UW Space Science and Engineering Center

The Space Science and Engineering Center at UW Madison is working with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to investigate the impacts of a changing climate on the floodplains in coastal Georgia. Two communities, Hinesville and Tybee Island, are dealing with changes to their floodplains and the current impacts to their citizens. In this work we investigate the potential changes to their floodplains and the impacts associated with increased risks and damages. This work revealed that even minor changes to water volumes within the floodplain can result in damages many times greater than the expected changes in water levels. The next phase of this research is beginning and involves working directly with the community to educate and then respond to these possible future scenarios.

March 12, 2019

Big data ecology: Advancing the study of the natural world through citizen science             

Ben Zuckerberg, UW Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology
For more than a hundred years, ecology relied on carefully planned field studies focusing on a few species for a few years on a few parcels of land. These studies advanced numerous theories on how species interact with their environment, but the early 21st century ushered in a new era in the use of "big data" in ecology. Big data broadly describes large complex datasets arising from advancements in information technology and data acquisition. For ecologists, the most important stream of big data comes from citizen science programs that enlist the public in collecting observations of the natural world. Citizen scientists, equipped with both old tools (binoculars) and new technologies (smartphones), regularly collect data on where species occur across the world and are essential for documenting the ecological impacts of environmental change. I will present our recent work on the use of citizen science for studying impacts of urbanization and climate change on bird communities, and discuss the successes and challenges of big data ecology.  

March 26, 2019

A form for the feeling of being alive and kicking”: Chaos and structure in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

Kevin Reilly, Former President UW System

Right from the start, Finnegans Wake subverts the usual order by beginning at the end and ending at the beginning.  Its very title is a spring-loaded word trick.  The Wake is perhaps the most complex and unread of all the great works of world literature—and a great joke book too!  We will read it out loud as Joyce intended, and hear how its fun chaos in language calls up profound speculation on life.

Please see the recommended reading.

April 2, 2019

Disruptive technologies in the transition to renewable energy: The future of energy production and storage

Michael Winokur, UW Department of Physics

Many forms of renewable energy are based on mature technologies (e.g. single layer solar cells, wind, hydro) and while now economically competitive there are clear limitations for each.  This talk will focus on a number of complimentary developing technologies that, if successful, will both reduce and/or displace the consumption of fossil fuels and thereby accelerate the transition to an energy portfolio centered around renewable energy.  Specific examples include supercritical CO2 turbines, hydrogen production and tandem solar cells.   Novel energy storage systems, such as those based on chemical redox reactions and solid state chemistry, will also be discussed. 

April 9, 2019

In the beginning: children with disabilities in American policy, 1912-1960

Walter Schalick, UW Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation

I offer a precis of some of my work on kids with  disabilities in the US, stressing scientific, clinical and governmental > policy innovations (more fun than it sounds) and their transformational effect on adults with disabilities. Most of the data comes from archives across the country.

April 16, 2019

Pliocene and Eocene provide best analogs for near-future climates

Kevin Burke, UW Department of Geography

As the world warms due to rising greenhouse gas concentrations, the Earth system moves toward climate states without societal precedent, challenging adaptation. Past Earth system states offer possible model systems for the warming world of the coming decades. These include the climate states of the Early Eocene (ca. 50 Ma), the Mid-Pliocene (3.3–3.0 Ma), the Last Interglacial (129–116 ka), the Mid-Holocene (6 ka), preindustrial (ca. 1850 CE), and the 20th century. Here, we quantitatively assess the similarity of future projected climate states to these six geohistorical benchmarks using simulations from the Hadley Centre Coupled Model Version 3 (HadCM3), the Goddard Institute for Space Studies Model E2-R (GISS), and the Community Climate System Model, Versions 3 and 4 (CCSM) Earth system models. Under the Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 (RCP8.5) emission scenario, by 2030 CE, future climates most closely resemble Mid-Pliocene climates, and by 2150 CE, they most closely resemble Eocene climates. Under RCP4.5, climate stabilizes at Pliocene-like conditions by 2040 CE. Pliocene-like and Eocene-like climates emerge first in continental interiors and then expand outward. Geologically novel climates are uncommon in RCP4.5 (<1%) but reach 8.7% of the globe under RCP8.5, characterized by high temperatures and precipitation. Hence, RCP4.5 is roughly equivalent to stabilizing at Pliocene-like climates, while unmitigated emission trajectories, such as RCP8.5, are similar to reversing millions of years of long-term cooling on the scale of a few human generations. Both the emergence of geologically novel climates and the rapid reversion to Eocene-like climates may be outside the range of evolutionary adaptive capacity.

April 23, 2019

Energy, evolution, and the origins of life?

Terry Allard, Office of Naval Research and NASA

It’s human nature to look for a deep understanding of who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. This presentation will explore a new hypothesis for the evolution of life articulated by Professor Nick Lane in his ground-breaking 2015 book, The Vital Question. We will review the timeline of emerging life on earth and the evolutionary relationships among the three Kingdoms: Bacteria, Archaea and Eurkaryotes. All living cells are powered by proton gradients across membranes and the secret of life is maintaining this disequilibrium through active proton pumps based on energy metabolism. Acceleration of energy production within Eukaryotes can explain the exponential growth in the complexity of life from single cells to whole organisms. Proton gradients across membranes at alkaline hydrothermal vents in the early oceans provide an explanation of how inorganic chemistry could drive organic chemistry; mechanisms of organic chemistry supporting life may have evolved before the emergence of the cell itself. This bioenergetic hypothesis suggests a very specific context for the emergence of life on earth that could be a critical variable for the search for complex life in the universe.

Primary Source Material

Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution and the Origins of Complex Life (2015). W. W. Norton & Company, New York City.

Some Discussion Points

1) What is life?

2) What do the 3 Kingdoms of Life have in common and how do they differ?

3) What are the impacts of lateral gene transfer on linear descendance and the Tree of Life?

4) How does the chemistry of the ancient oceans compare to today’s oceans?

5) How did organic chemistry and cell structures emerge?

6) How likely is extraterrestrial life in the universe?

April 30, 2019

Year-end celebration

Following the tradition of recent years in which we had a delightful discussion of where we have come and where we might go with the seminars, this last seminar of the semester will be devoted to a continuation of that discussion without any formal speaker. We will also discuss what we want to do during our informal weekly lunches on the Memorial Union Terrace which begin on May 7th. This celebration will include expanded refreshments, to which your own culinary contribution is welcome.