Calling someone an expert in chaos theory might sound like an insult, but William L. Ditto just smiles and thanks you for the compliment. He really is an expert on the topic—author of Chaos in Biology and Medicine and internationally known for his application of chaos control to physical and biological systems, not to mention development of a new type of computer based on nonlinear dynamics and chaos.
July 2011 found Ditto settling in as dean of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. He took the post after serving as the Olin Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Arizona State University, where he was the founding director of the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering.
Starting things has been something of a career pattern. Ditto was previously founding chair of the University of Florida Department of Biomedical Engineering and a founding faculty member in the Emory/Georgia Tech Biomedical Engineering Department at Georgia Institute of Technology. A physicist by training, he holds a BS from the University of California at Los Angeles and PhD from Clemson University.
Ditto paused during the busy-ness of relocating to Oʻahu this summer for a decidedly calm conversation with Mālamalama.
What is chaos theory…in layman’s terms, please!
The world is nonlinear, which means that it can be chaotic, where even the tiniest of changes can have dramatic, global and far-reaching effects. This is known as the “butterfly effect.” Chaos is predominant in nature and lies between the rigid regularity of periodic or regular behavior—dynamics—and the random behavior of, say, someone in Las Vegas.
You have been recognized for numerous research and scientific achievements throughout your career—Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award, Industry Week Top 50 Industrial R&D Star, etc. What do you count as your greatest contribution?
I always consider my greatest achievement to be wherever my imagination takes me that day. But looking back, I might say it was the demonstration of the control of chaotic systems and its application to chaotic computers. A close second is a recent discovery about the role played by circadian rhythm in the generation of epileptic seizures.
What are you working on now?
My most recent work is on the role played by nonlinear dynamics in synthetic biological systems and getting engineered gene networks to perform computations.
Did you always want to pursue physics?
I cannot remember a time when I did not want to be a scientist in general and a physicist in particular. Frankly, my career path started around age 5, maybe even younger, with an insatiable desire to understand how the universe worked. I constantly had, and still have, a need to know.
Who was your role model?
I have had several. A fictional one is Howard Roark from the book The Fountainhead. I have always admired individualism, and that character has always inspired me. In real life, it would be Walt Disney because of his unique imagination and creativity.
You were born in Anchorage, and have lived many places—California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Missouri, Ohio. What brought you to Hawaiʻi and UH Mānoa?
What pleased me most about this campus and state was the sense of community, and I’m looking forward to integrating into the wonderful community that drew me here. Mānoa has a strong recognition of its unique position as a university at the nexus of many cultures as well as its purpose and commitment to Hawaiʻi. A sense of community, moral courage and pure fun all motivate my combined academic and administrative goals. I am delighted to be invited to contribute to the uniqueness that is UH Mānoa.
You are leading Mānoa’s second largest college, comprised of nine academic departments and programs. What are your goals and vision for the college?
The role of public higher education has never been more critical to individual and community success. It is my hope to engage the College of Natural Sciences faculty, students and staff in an exciting new era that embraces openness and fiscal creativity, coupled with the goal of reacquainting all of us as to why a university is such a unique and wonderful place.
I aspire to create an environment where no constraints are given hold over us, but where we are masters of our own fate in creating a campus with contagious enthusiasm for science, innovation and learning. I also want to cultivate a will to reinvent and invigorate our mission to create a campus where fun is the most common activity and where our only bounds are the limits of our imagination.
UH has a mandate to be more innovative and entrepreneurial in order to drive the state in a 21st-century global economy.
The College of Natural Sciences can play a critical role in enabling and nourishing faculty, students, scholars, staff, alumni, community partners and the broader Hawaiʻi community toward innovation, creativity and the sheer fun of discovery. Expansive and enjoyable innovation can have a global impact in every field.
We want this campus to build future generations of risk-takers and achievers who blend and balance life, community and innovation to make the world a richer place while enhancing the already wonderful quality of life—the rich cultural and physical beauty—that Hawaiʻi has to offer.
Why is the study of science important?
The social networking, interconnected world of today is very different than the world of even five years ago. This basis of our world today, more so than any other time in human history, is embedded in science and discovery.
Whether you are a science major or not, you simply cannot disconnect from science any more than you can disconnect from the Internet. It is too finely integrated in our everyday lives. The decisions that we make—from policy to law, medicine and business of every kind—requires or maybe even demands familiarity with science and the scientific method as a basis for knowledge and decision making.
Yet some people mistrust science and scientists.
A good book, which I utilized in a recent class, is Michael Specter’s Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives.
One of the best things that can be done about this is to bring our communities—local, global, social and cultural—into the ongoing and exciting dialogue of science and its role in our society. In our 24-hour news cycle world, we have all become too acquainted with sound bites that emphasize hype over substance and immediacy over relevance.
One role our university can play is to avoid creating a generation of “hoop jumpers,” as described by essayist William Deresiewicz. He argues that leadership requires solitude, focus and meaningful relationships. Without these, he says, it is hard to arrive at thoughts that are truly your own, and difficult to develop the moral compass and moral courage necessary to act on those thoughts.
You obviously enjoy reading. Any other hobbies?
I am an avid history buff. I confess that I am also rather addicted to HGTV and all the home renovation shows.