In Alaska, I met George Sugihara. He was one of the keynote speakers at the conference I attended and he gave a stellar talk on nonlinear methods in fisheries (abstract). To me, it was an eye-opener: The methods he talked about didn’t seem too hard to master (I think I understood the basic idea), but from what he showed us, they had impressive power in prediction and made understanding complex systems like eco-systems seem (relatively) easy (I mean understand as in better than before).
The methods Sugihara talked about are rooted in chaos theory. Despite its name, chaos theory deals with order, but complex order of seemingly random systems. The typical example is the Lorenz attractor (check out the cool demonstration of the attractor: try initiating two curves with similar starting points and observe how different they evolve); a well-known result is the butterfly effect. Chaos theory is closely linked to fractals, and Sugihara has co-written a book on the use of fractals in the natural sciences. (I’ve posted on fractals earlier.)
Sugihara is an impressive guy. He does research in fisheries, astrophysics, theoretical ecology and on climate change and probably a lot more. He even once worked for the Deutsche Bank analysing market fluctuations. Currently, he’s a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. The Scientific American ran an interview with Sugihara in Febuary:
Sugihara has […] shown that populations of different fish species are linked. Most regulations consider each species—sardines, salmon or swordfish—in isolation. But fishing, he says, is like the stock market—the crash of one or two species, or a hedge fund or mortgage bank, can trigger a catastrophic collapse of the entire system.