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From chaos, excellence | ASU News

February 11, 2022

Chaos theorist Ying-Cheng Lai named ASU Regents Professor

How do you become Regents Professor, the elite of the academic world, specializing in chaos? Sometimes it’s just random.

The hallmark of chaos is called sensitive dependence on initial conditions, which means that if you make a small change now, it will be a big change in the future. It is also called the butterfly effect. If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, it can cause a tornado in Texas. Despite its apparent randomness, chaos in systems like weather or ecosystems often has patterns.

When Ying-Cheng Lai was a graduate student in the physics department at the University of Maryland College Park, he was selecting a thesis supervisor. His first choice was a prominent condensed matter physicist. He made an appointment.

“And I waited an hour,” Lai said. “He didn’t show up, so I went to my next choice, which was the non-linear and chaos dynamic group. They gave me a warm welcome. That’s how I got into chaos. That’s just because (of) such a small change. If the condensed matter professor had arrived in time, I’d probably be a condensed matter physicist right now. It’s a sensitive dependence on the initial conditions.

This month, Arizona State University chaos theorist was officially inducted as a Regents Professor by the Arizona Board of Regents.

To receive the distinction, scholars must be tenured professors, with outstanding achievements in their fields, who are recognized nationally and internationally by their peers.

No more than 3% of all ASU faculty carry the distinction.

“I was surprised,” Lai said of the news. “I was very grateful to all the colleagues, especially my headmaster and my dean for supporting me over the years and proposing to me.”

Lai is the ISS Endowed Professor of Electrical Engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Externally, he is a member of the Science and Technology Expert Panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Fellow of the American Physical Society, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Fellow of the Pentagon Vannevar Bush, Fellow foreigner of Academia Europaea (the Academy of Europe) and corresponding member of the National Academy of Sciences and Letters of Scotland.

One of the world’s most influential and innovative researchers in the field of nonlinear dynamics and complex systems, Lai focuses on relativistic quantum chaos, an interdisciplinary field he pioneered at the borders of three branches of theoretical physics: quantum mechanics, relativity and chaos theory. Another major achievement is his contribution to the understanding and applications of transient chaos in physical and biological systems.

In total, Lai has over 500 referenced journal articles with over 26,000 citations and has secured over $12 million in federal funding. Additionally, he has graduated 22 doctoral and numerous master’s students, and has mentored more than a dozen postdoctoral fellows.

In a field that encompasses everything from physics and meteorology to ecology and sociology, Lai said ASU’s interdisciplinary approach to scholarship makes it the perfect place to pursue it.

“ASU is a great place, especially as an interdisciplinary research environment; it’s great,” he said. “I get to talk to all kinds of colleagues who work in different fields, so it’s great fun… I have collaborators in engineering, of course, in mathematics, and in physics and chemistry, and also in systems biology and even in social science.”

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News