S ound blasts from the computer’s speaker like water from a fireman’s hose. Within the onslaught there are flashes of the familiar—a heavy rain, air escaping from a balloon, and the rhythmic whine of old windshield wipers. Kevin Short has constructed this sound file as an example of what he calls “raw chaos.”

Next, the speaker emits the courtly sound of a 16th-century harpsichord piece, complete with counterpoint, 32nd notes, and trills. This, too, is the sound of chaos—tamed by Short. An associate professor in applied mathematics, he has mastered the mathematics of chaos theory for a broad range of purposes that could have a major impact on the networking and telecommunications fields.

The University has set up its first spin-off company, Chaoticom, to develop and market the new technology.

Using mathematical equations, Short can produce drastically compressed audio, video, or image files. That’s because the mathematical information needed to produce the pattern of pixels in an image takes up much less space than the bits and bytes now used to specify every pixel on a computer screen. Imagine downloading a feature-length film from the Web in a few minutes or storing 1,000 hours of music on one CD.

Chaos theory, with its reliance on differential equations and nonlinear math, can be difficult to fathom. Mathematicians define chaos as behavior that falls somewhere between the periodic and the truly random. “Chaotic systems—like the weather—are predictable in the short term, but not in the long term,” says Short.

Perhaps the most famous part of chaos theory is the Butterfly Effect, which illustrates how a small change in the beginning will produce great differences in the future. Here’s the analogy: A butterfly flaps its wings in China today, and, theoretically, causes a major storm in the United States next year.

“In our work,” explains Short, “we have had to walk a tight line between controlling and reducing large-scale long-term changes while still allowing the system to produce wildly varying patterns or waveforms.”

Short began this line of research when he received grants from the National Security Agency to test encryption systems based on chaos theory. He cracked every system he tested but realized that the security flaws could be fixed. He and mathematics graduate student Andy Parker devised a more secure chaos-based encryption scheme.

In the process, Short discovered how to make waveforms suitable for music and then enlisted the help of two undergrads. According to Kimo Johnson, a dual major in math and music, Short “saw a few of us who wanted to put in the extra work and found ways of challenging us.” Johnson and physics major Dan Hussey got a lot of strange “bleeps and blurps” from their computer, but they ultimately succeeded in producing a system for synthesizing music.

Next Short tackled reproduction of audio files, beginning with the harpsichord in part because its timbre is more difficult to imitate than many other instruments. Late one night he called his parents in New York and held the telephone receiver to his computer speaker. They easily recognized the sound of a harpsichord.

“That’s when I knew that this was not just a limited project, but something that could have profound effects,” recalls Short.

Chaoticom investors have high hopes that Short’s invention could be very profitable. All profits will be shared with the University, Short, and his former students. Whatever the results are, Short looks forward to returning to the classroom after taking a leave of absence to start the company. No doubt he will find a few more students who want to be challenged.

—Virginia Stuart, College of Engineering and Physical Sciences

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Excellence in Research, Kevin M. Short

Kevin M. Short with Chuck Lloyd and Lucy McQuilken at the Chaoticom office, Hampton Falls, N.H.

Kevin M. Short, associate professor of mathematics and statistics, College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, with Chuck Lloyd, senior software architect, and Lucy McQuilken, president, at the Chaoticom office, Hampton Falls, N.H.


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