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Explore the Emergent Universe

September 29, 2009

Ranging from slime molds to quantum matter to Alzheimer's disease, a new online exhibit opening Oct. 1 aims to encourage young people to learn about "emergence," complex behaviors that arise from the interaction of simple parts, and encourages them to develop an "emergent perspective."

"An emergent perspective allows you to approach real-world problems in a different way," said David Pines, distinguished professor of physics at UC Davis and co-director of the University of California Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter, which sponsored the Emergent Universe Web site. "You realize that here are no unique solutions -- you have to try many different things, look for organizing principles and get a feel for what is connected to what."

Emergent Universe http://www.emergentuniverse.org uses animations, art, games, music and even a manga comic book to draw viewers into exploring emergent phenomena. The exhibit is aimed at 15- to 30-year-olds, college-bound or college-educated, but not necessarily with a scientific background.

"Different activities are designed to appeal to a broad range of learning styles and interests," said designer and museum director, Suzi Tucker. "We chose to go for exploration, to let people get sucked in."

"We want to convey the idea that emergence is not just about studying emergent behavior in matter -- there are general principles that apply in the world at large, to climate change, to economics, to fixing our schools," Pines said.

"The idea is to introduce young people to the concept of emergence and encourage them to think about it in their daily life," he said.

A major part of the exhibit explores the "Fibril Connection": a misfolded amyloid protein can give rise to devastating conditions like Alzheimer's disease, yet the same proteins perform useful functions in other living systems. Visitors can zoom in on a human brain and discover the mysteries of amyloid through lab notebooks, animations and games.

In the "Unlocking the Universe" section, visitors can:
• Listen to music composed to express the concepts of emergence in quantum mechanics;
• View a manga comic that illustrates an emergent perspective;
• Zoom in on a pointillist image that illustrates length scales;
• Play the "Game of Life," creating patterns from simple interactions; and
• "Grow Art," from repeated application of very simple rules.

The developers plan to add a new section on superconductivity in the next year.

The site was designed and developed by Tucker, a former chemistry professor at UC Davis, with interactive designer Stephen Hartzog and scientific input from Pines, UC Davis physics professor Daniel Cox, and other members of the Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter. The site was funded mainly by the institute, a multidisciplinary research program of the University of California with 57 branches across the U.S. and globally, headquartered at UC Davis, with additional support from private foundations, the National Science Foundation and individual donors.

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