Want to learn about math or astronomy Monday?

Tough choice, I know, but two evening lectures on the subjects at the University of Arizona are free and aimed at a general audience.

Need more enticement? The sweetener at the annual Daniel Bartlett Memorial Mathematics Lecture is free dessert afterwards. The Steward Observatory public evening is followed (weather permitting) with a look at the stars from the observatory’s historic dome.

Chaos Games & Fractal Images

6:30 p.m. Gallagher Theater, Student Union Memorial Center

You don’t need a knowledge of geometry to understand the beautiful images it will produce on the big screen at Gallagher Theater, promises mathematician Robert L. Devaney of Boston University.

You also don’t need an understanding of chaos theory, although Devaney will have you playing something he calls the “chaos game,” which uses random movements on a triangle to produce those ever-changing fractals you might remember from the early days of computer screen savers.

“You do something very simple, and random, and out comes something beautiful,” said Devaney.

By the end of the talk, Devaney will be creating ferns and other natural forms — all of which have their basis in simple math.

Devaney, in addition to his years of research in complex analytic dynamics, is a renowned teacher, cited by the universities where he has taught and by the American Mathematical Society and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

He is director of the NSF’s Dynamical Systems and Technology Project, which introduces the latest topics in mathematics into high-school curricula.

Teaching flows directly from his research, said Devaney. “It’s just so beautiful, you can’t not show it to other people,” he said.

William McCallum, head of the UA’s Department of Mathematics, said his department has attracted increasingly larger audiences to the annual Bartlett lectures by gearing them to a general audience.

This particular one, he said, “is an evening to cure your math phobia.”

The lectures were set up by the family of Daniel Bartlett, who was a graduate student in the department until his death at age 25 in August 2006.


Life: A Phenomenon Rooted in Astronomy

7:30 p.m. Steward Observatory, room N210

“I’m going to tell you a bunch of things,” promises astronomer Neville “Nick” Woolf.

He has picked the big questions:

What is life? How did life come to be here? How did it get started? What does it mean to be human?

And, yes, he will answer all those questions in one hour.

Woolf, who just celebrated his 80th birthday, has spent a long career as an astronomer at the University of Arizona, where he helped create the Mirror Lab and the Large Binocular Telescope, in addition to identifying silicates ejected from red giant stars, and other astronomical stuff.

Woolf is still teaching, and, in fact, this lecture on life is an an outgrowth of a course he is teaching this semester on the the nature of life.

An astrobiologist and astrophysicist, Woolf has thought long about these questions and has headed a NASA Astrobiology Institute at the UA.

In brief, Woolf will define life as a dissipative system that has developed an ability, courtesy of carbon compounds, to change before it loses all its energy — reproduction, evolution, all that jazz.

It started when comets and meteorites bombarded a sterilized Earth with a soup of these complex carbon compounds in the presence of energy from the sun, Woolf said.

It has produced a species that now stands “on the shoulders of our ancestors,” who gave us fire, speech, farming, animal husbandry, shelter, science, technology, medicine and the rest.

Unfortunately, quips Woolf, “Social organization hasn’t progressed much. There is a bit of cheating and the top animals get what they want.”

He promises to suggest a hopeful way forward.