Authors: Art imitates science, imitates life

August 23, 2005 By Barbara Wolff

What follows is a brief blueprint for successful collaboration: Agree upon the goal. Have a clear idea of which of you is going to do what, and when. Communicate about the project often. Respect each other’s points of view.

It also helps if collaborators enjoy contra dance, testify Robin Chapman, professor emerita of communicative disorders and psychology, and Julien Clinton “Clint” Sprott, professor of physics. In September, their new book, “Images of a Complex World: The Art and Poetry of Chaos,” will be published. The book is the subject of Wisconsin Week’s book column on Page 8.

Poetry offers insights into language development
When Robin Chapman was 5 years old, a babysitter read her Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha.”

Chapman was transfixed by the experience, and followed with an informal study of poetry by A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Carroll. With time out for tenure and motherhood, Chapman’s passion for poetry has continued unabated.

Perhaps her intense interest is in language itself. Her academic career in the Departments of Communicative Disorders and Psychology has centered on the ways we learn language … or don’t. Chapman has led a number of influential studies on the factors at play in language acquisition. Some of her most recent work challenges the idea that children with Down syndrome cease to learn language when they reach their teens. Instead, Chapman and her colleagues suggest that individuals with Down syndrome can and do acquire language and other skills far beyond adolescence.

Poetry brings an important extra dimension to her work, and vice versa, she says.

“Poetry has taught me how important language can be in the life of children, including those with difficulties learning language,” she says. “And the perseverance required to get poems published in the face of many rejection slips has taught me to press on with the revision of research writing.”

These days, Chapman finds metaphor particularly fascinating.

“Metaphor in poetry has prompted me to look very closely at the metaphors that we use, consciously or unconsciously, in science. For example, think about the way we speak of memory as though it were a container, or children’s development as being a series of stages, like staircase steps,” she says.

Chapman will pursue metaphors of retirement, a status she has enjoyed since 1999, in a new anthology of poetry. “The Fourth Quarter” (University of Iowa Press) will be out next year. Meanwhile, she is involved with the ongoing Epidemic Peace Imagery Collection, composed of some 240 poems and images of peace. Begun in Chapman’s backyard, the collection has traveled Wisconsin for the last three years.

Chapman continues to conduct research part time. Currently she is completing studies of storytelling by teen-agers with Down syndrome. Somehow, she manages to fit art and science into an active participation in the natural world: hiking and canoeing as well as dancing with husband, Will Zarwell.

Especially dancing, she says. While poetry and science are essentially provinces of the intellect, contra dancing is pure physicality. Read her description of it in this excerpt from “Summer Contra,” which appears in “Images of Chaos”:

Dancing, we learn the meaning of sweat —
… sweat splashing off hands that we slap in long lines
forward and back, sweat running in rivulets
down partners necks …
… walk out into heat, two hours later, washed salty and clean from every pore.

For Sprott, interests converge on road of science
The two parallel lines that contra dancers form at the beginning of a set typically yield a number of complex geometric patterns as partners are traded and reclaimed before the fiddler stops.

“The patterns that the dancers form may be one reason why scientists and mathematicians seem to be drawn to contra dancing,” says Sprott.

Although a devotee of contra dancing for more than 30 years, and something he continues to pursue at least once a week, it isn’t all Sprott is drawn to. An avid bicyclist, camper, canoeist, skier, spelunker and more, Sprott has been described as “a human dynamo.” However, his favorite hobbies are those with an obvious scientific component, usually having to do with navigation or communication.

Like Chapman, his interests appeared early in his life. By age 12 he was a licensed ham radio operator (W9AV) intent on getting a pilot’s license. That latter goal went on hiatus in favor of school and career. However, once Sprott had earned his Ph.D. from UW in 1969, he celebrated by signing up for flying lessons.

“I saw an airplane pulling a banner saying ‘Learn to Fly — Powell Airport’ over Oak Ridge, Tenn., where I was working at the time (at the national laboratory, in 1971). I was at the airport the next day. I became instrument rated in 1973 and regularly took plane loads of students to scientific meetings, traveling over the next decade to nearly every major city east of the Rockies, plus the Bahamas,” he says.

Although Sprott has curtailed his aeronautical adventures in recent years, he still flies. “Even now I find it amazing that one can climb into the clouds, fly halfway across the county and then break out of the clouds with the runway dead ahead. Knowing that I can do that provides a great sense of accomplishment,” he says.

Professional accomplishment comes in the form of experimental plasma physics with an application to the development of controlled nuclear fusion. “Fusion promises an inexhaustible supply of energy, and its attainment would revolutionize society,” he says.

Since 1989 his work has concentrated on nonlinear dynamics and chaos. In 1984 he began his “Wonders of Physics” presentations, intended to generate interest in science. To date, he has put on 176 “W of P” presentations to an audience estimated to exceed 50,000. In February the UW Press will publish a book describing the demonstrations.

Sprott intends to take a break from writing books to catch up on his research projects: “My students and I are programming computers to examine the dynamical behavior of large networks that could represent an ecology, an economy or even a human brain. We are interested in the properties of complex models that are independent of what it is they are modeling.”