Nov. 6, 2008

Welcome to Chaos: Strogatz course featured on DVD

If current events are making the study of chaos theory seem particularly relevant these days, a new course on DVD featuring Steve Strogatz, Cornell professor of theoretical and applied mechanics, could be just the thing for a touch of perspective.

"Chaos," a 24-lecture series that covers the science and math behind chaos theory -- plus the historical, cultural and philosophical implications of the concept -- is the result of two years' collaboration between Strogatz, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell, and the Teaching Company, a Chantilly, Va.-based company that offers courses taught by top-rated university faculty from around the country.

The course -- which includes more than two hours of animation, multiple in-studio demonstrations, more than 150 photos, diagrams and video clips -- is an introduction to the discoveries of Poincaré and Lorenz; the significance of fractals, iterated maps and Mandelbrot sets; and to the way chaos theory has influenced the evolution of modern mathematics and physics. It covers applications of chaos theory as they appear in medicine, philosophy, religion, pop culture and art.

And at its heart, Strogatz said, is "a twisty-turny detective story" about the human process of discovery and denial that played out as scientists and mathematicians came to terms with a concept that simply "didn't fit the framework they had in their heads."

For Strogatz, the project of making the course was as educational, perhaps, as the course itself.

It began in 2006, when a Teaching Company representative sat in on one of Strogatz's Cornell courses and proposed the idea. With input from an editor and feedback from focus groups of established customers, Strogatz designed a course targeted to a generally well-educated audience -- light on the math, but including a wide variety of angles he hadn't explored before.

That meant brushing up on the chaotic paintings of Jackson Pollock, learning about ancient Babylonian culture, and pondering the text of the Declaration of Independence.

"It was totally different from any course I ever taught. I had to learn a lot ... it really took me out of my comfort zone," Strogatz said. "Here in the engineering school, I would never talk about Jackson Pollock or the Babylonians' creation epics. So it was very enjoyable to me to see all these things I had distantly heard about in my subject, but didn't know enough about to give a lecture on."

And if some of the material was new, the format was also unfamiliar. There was learning to use a teleprompter (not as easy as it looks), lecturing to a nearly empty studio instead of a roomful of undergrads, and adhering to a strict 30-minute-per-lecture limit. Not to mention -- well, having to wear a tie.

"They want the lecturer to have something credible-looking on," he said. "That took a little getting used to."

Lectures are filmed on a simple set, with computer graphics and live demonstrations (using a double pendulum, various other mechanical gadgets, and a special shipment of a peculiar kind of fractal-resembling broccoli). Retakes are rare. The goal is to create the feel of a typical college course, Strogatz said -- minus the homework, grades and exams.

The course also comes with a guidebook of lecture outlines, recommended readings, Internet resources and discussion questions, as well as a historical timeline, glossary and bibliography.

Altogether, Strogatz said, the undertaking was huge -- but worth it. "The company was extremely professional in every way. Every person I worked with was top-notch," he said. "I did enjoy it a lot."

The course is available at the Teaching Company's Web site: