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Monday, June 5, 2006

Physicist outlines complexity theory in UNCP lecture

The next time you are snared in a traffic jam, or the stock market nosedives for no apparent reason, remember it’s more complex than you think.

Kevin BasslerUniversity of Houston physicist and complexity theorist Dr. Kevin Bassler delivered the 3rd annual Robert K Gustafson Memorial Scholar Series lecture this spring at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He gave an overview of complexity theory to an audience representing many academic disciplines.

Like traffic, complexity theory seeks to explain the collective behavior of simple objects. Dr. Bassler drew examples from seemingly simple sand piles to very complex superconductors.

“It’s an ongoing project, and there is a long way to go,” he told the UNCP audience comprised of students, faculty and staff. “One automobile is simple to explain, but a lot of automobiles interacting is not as easily predicted as the simplicity of its individual parts.”

Several UNCP professors attending the lecture offered comments on complexity theory.

“Complexity theory seeks to unify different fields of science through fundamental common principles that underpin the universe,” said Dr. Thomas Dooling, a physics professor. “Because you can do much of this kind of work on computers, there may be some projects we want to work on in our classes.”

The lecture drew an audience from across campus, including Dr. Eric Dent, dean of the School of Business.

“Complexity theory also has broad application in the social sciences, and, particularly, in the organizations in which we all work,” Dr. Dent said. “Dr. Bassler mentioned far-from-equilibrium systems, and it turns out that organizations are more innovative and productive if they are closer to being far-from-equilibrium than equilibrium. Significant research and experimentation is taking place to discover how to move organizations away from equilibrium.”

In his research, Dr. Bassler found similarities between electricity passing through a superconductor and the way water carves out river basins.

“Are there laws or principles of behavior in complex systems?” he asked. “I may not be able to predict the next uptick of the stock market, but we may be able to find the underlying statistical basis for what drives the system.”

“By studying a river, will you be able to understand how more complex systems work?” Dr. Bassler asked. “If you compare those systems, some common behaviors may be observed.”

“The whole of systems is greater than the sum of the parts,” he said.

The Gustafson Lecture Series was founded by Helen S. Gustafson of Laurinburg, N.C., to honor her late husband and former UNCP professor, Dr. Robert K. Gustafson. The late Dr. Gustafson was a faculty member from 1968-93 and was chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion.

The series is hosted by the University Honors College, which recognizes and promotes the scholarship of outstanding students.

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