photo of Fern Hunt

Chaos expert Fern Hunt '69

Fuses went haywire nearly every time Fern Hunt's parents turned on a light. A middleschooler, Hunt was experimenting with mail-order electrical kits, exhibiting an early love of science sparked by the chemistry set her mother had given her just a few years prior. Hunt then met her science club advisor and 9th-grade science teacher, Charles Wilson-which Hunt says turned out to be "the single most important event in my individual career."

Wilson encouraged her to participate in science fairs and in the Saturday Science Program at Columbia University, where an introduction to mathematics turned her interest permanently to that field. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science and Bryn Mawr, she completed a PhD in mathematics from New York University. Today, as a researcher with the National Institute for Standards and Technology, Hunt applies her specialty to all fields of science in investigating the physical, chemical and electrical properties of materials important to U.S. industry.

In the Mathematical and Computational Sciences division, Hunt's major current project is studying the microstructural basis for the appearance of paints and coatings. "There is a lag between standards for a desirable appearance in paints and coatings and the technological advances and capabilities in measurement science," says Hunt. "The goal is to take advantage of those advances to come up with better standards and characterizations."

What makes her work different is the application of computer graphics renderings, which simulate the process of how a person sees things. "We take measurements of how a particular paint scatters light, then use those measurements to produce a photorealistic image of what a surface with that paint would look like," explains Hunt. Kitchen sinks, cars and computer screens are just some of the products that will improve aesthetically as a direct result of this research in the paint industry, which Hunt says "has a lot of industrial consequences, particularly for e-commerce."

The motion picture industry also stands to benefit. Hollywood studios tend to use "quick and dirty" methods of computer graphics renderings in order to meet tight production deadlines. "One of the results I fully expect," says Hunt, "will be the development of quicker, faster methods of rendering that will take advantage of the increased realism that comes from these measurements and the interface that we're creating."

At NIST, Hunt also pursues her own mathematical research in the field of dynamical systems, including chaos. Chaos is commonly associated with things happening at random-the roll of a dice or any other kind of a chance event. "But unpredictable behavior can also occur in events that we don't think of as being random at all," she says. For example,take the game of billiards. Such a system is known as deterministic, and normally one does not think of a deterministic system as showing unpredictable behavior. "But the fact of the matter is in a lot of cases, measurements taken of the motion of a billiard ball would be very difficult if not impossible to distinguish from measurements of a random process," says Hunt. "My research seeks to answer the questions: What are the laws of probability and statistics that govern the behavior of chaotic systems? Can chaotic systems be approximated by very simple computer and probability-based systems? Finally, are truly random systems hiding inside of deterministic ones, and if they are, can we detect them and use them to predict chaotic behavior?"

These questions have wide-reaching implications for anyone who depends on the accurate prediction and control of complex systems, Hunt says. It is well known that chaos can arise from system complexity-the weather and the problem of weather prediction are examples of that fact. Less well known are the statistical laws that govern chaotic and truly random behavior. Discovering those laws can lead to new ways of controlling chaos: "For example, Eric Bollt of the Naval Academy and Celso Grebogi of the University of Maryland are conducting research on the design of new kinds of digital communication systems that are very secure and more resistant to noise than conventional systems. Their methods are based on steering mathematical systems toward chaotic subsystems with desirable properties." The statistical laws that are the subject of Hunt's research are used to identify these subsystems.

Hunt, a former professor at Howard University, continues to mentor students at a magnet school in Silver Spring MD. Her students are working on a summer research program at NIST. She says the program is "an opportunity to listen to what they have to offer, and that's quite a bit." Hunt has also tutored mathematics in disadvantaged neighborhoods in downtown Washington DC: "You really can't be too egotistical about things like this. You do what you can and just hope by some sort of grace that someone feels helped, and surprisingly, often they do."

Hunt recently received an Arthur S. Flemming Award for outstanding federal service in the science category, one of three winners this year.

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