Chaos theory is the field of study in mathematics that studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions — a response popularly referred to as the butterfly effect.
For many of us, the summer is a time to reflect upon the year that has passed and ponder the year that is to come. In many academic situations, this is quite well known or "deterministic"; we know the semester dates, we know the courses we will teach, and we know the preparation our students have had coming into our classes. However, each year’s passage charts a different course; it is never static, but always changing, not least that each year brings a new group of talented, curious and questioning students. It is as if in a well-known situation there is always opportunity for surprise! This could be thought of as chaos...but in a positive sense.
Civil and Environmental Engineers deal with dynamical systems all the time, whether they be the impacts of weather and climate on structures and the environment, or the passage of traffic on our transportation networks. (Summer is also a good time to experience traffic!) Using our mathematical skills, we model, analyze and ultimately design solutions to these dynamical systems. However, despite this rigorous approach, it is clear that initial conditions — the state of the weather at one point in time, the state of corrosion in a bridge, the exact soil properties under a foundation, or the chemical content of a waste discharge — lead to significantly different problems and consequently solutions in our complex world.
It is the role of the engineer to consider this complexity in a chaotic world and provide for the safety of humanity. It is a challenging role and one that we at RPI have been undertaking for 180 years! Whether we are studying the role of natural hazards such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and snowstorms on structures, the fate of carbon and PFOA pollutants in our environment, or the response of humanitarian aid in disaster relief, Civil and Environmental engineers at RPI are learning to improve the human condition and "Build a Better World."
Professor and Head of Department
Dept. of Civil & Environmental Engineering