Santa Fe Institute

Laurence Gonzales named an SFI Miller Scholar

March 21, 2016 12:49 p.m.

The author Laurence Gonzales has been named a Miller Scholar of the Santa Fe Institute. He will be in residence at the Institute periodically over the next 12 months.

The Miller Distinguished Scholarship is the most prestigious visiting position at SFI, awarded to highly accomplished, creative thinkers who make profound contributions to our understandings of society, science, and culture.

Scholars are internally nominated and may have backgrounds in the humanities, arts, or sciences. During their stays at SFI, Miller Scholars are free to devote their time to exploration of any topic. They are encouraged to interact and collaborate with resident and visiting scientists, with the goal of catalyzing and crystallizing ongoing research at SFI.

Gonzales is a professional explorer, rooted in what he calls a compulsion to write. By age eight, he was composing embryonic short stories. By the time he started college (for the third time, he never finished), he began publishing his poetry and short stories in various literary magazines.

His formative years in Houston, San Antonio, and Chicago were steeped in science. In about the third grade he began working after school and on weekends in the biological science labs of the medical schools where his father taught. His father, Dr. Federico Gonzales, was one of the early developers of histological techniques for electron microscopy.

As a result, Gonzales learned to become an electron microscopy technician. In 1965 when he graduated from high school, he was snatched up by Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago to run its lab; his expected path, perhaps, was to begin premed at Northwestern.

“At that time, at 17, it seemed a far better idea to run away with a rock-and-roll band,” he says. “Which I did.”

One late night following a gig, the musicians spotted a gleaming, Day-Glo-painted school bus. They chased it down and Gonzales leapt out to speak with the driver. "Where are you guys going?" Gonzales asked. "Right here," said the driver. "What are you doing?" asked Gonzales. "Come along and you'll see."

He came along and soon learned that he had joined up with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. He stayed with them only long enough to party for three or four straight days and nights, but later, in 1973, he reconnected and traveled the country with the Pranksters, helping to found Kesey’s magazine Spit in the Ocean.

By that time he had been hired by Playboy Magazine where, between 1972 and 1978, he worked his way up the masthead to become its articles editor. He also wrote his first novel, Jambeaux, which was loosely based on his experiences as a musician. He wrote two other ("not very good," he says) novels, but decided that writing nonfiction was much easier and more practical. ("You don't have to make up the story," he said. "Besides, they paid you in those days.")

While at Playboy he began writing about airline crashes. This began his exploration of failure in complex mechanical and coupled mechanical-human systems. He felt that the explanations for these accidents were missing an important element: dealing adequately with the human component of the system.

This also furthered his interest in survival, a curiosity that traced to his father's survival in World War Two. When Federico Gonzales’s B-17 was shot down near Dusseldorf, Germany, he plummeted 27,000 feet without a parachute and lived to tell the story. (This story begins Gonzales’s book Deep Survival.)

Laurence left Playboy in 1978 to become a freelance writer, and he says he has been unemployed ever since.

During the 80s and 90s, Gonzales wrote articles for Harper's, Men's Journal, and National Geographic Adventure, among other publications. Some of his essays, often portraying his own adventures in setting and thought, have been collected in three books, the latest of which, House of Pain, was published in 2013.

Over the years, Gonzales never lost his interest in science, nor in questions stemming from airline crashes, such as: Why do smart people do stupid things?

"My father always began his classes at the medical school by saying, 'Fellow students,'" says Gonzales. "I was a little kid when I first heard him say that, and I objected that he was the teacher, not a student. But he told me that we should all be students all our lives and never stop learning. That taught me two of the most important lessons I ever learned: Everything is interesting if you look deeply enough. And everyone has a story to tell."

After reading in neuroscience for several years, he wrote the best-selling book Deep Survival: Who Lives? Who Dies, and Why? and its sequel Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, which attempt to answer related questions about how people make bad decisions and what leads some of them to survive and some to perish.

His most recent non-fiction book is Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, a detailed reconstruction of the crash of a fully-loaded DC-10. His most recent novel is Lucy, a coming-of-age tale of a girl who is the result of a genetic experiment.

He has won many writing awards, including two prestigious National Magazine Awards and the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is on the adjunct faculty at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where he teaches writing when he can get away from his other projects.

Gonzales first came to the Santa Fe Institute in 2006 at the invitation of SFI Board of Trustees Chair Michael Mauboussin and Board Chair Emeritus Bill Miller. He has since been a regular visitor and occasional speaker. He was selected for the Institute’s Journalism Fellowship in Complex Systems Science in 2015.

Gonzales is the 7th SFI Miller Scholar since Bill Miller conceived and underwrote the program in 2010. He follows author Neal Stephenson (2015-2016); narrative historian Hampton Sides (2015); philosopher and author Rebecca Goldstein (2011-2012); actor-author-playwright Sam Shepard (2010-2011); quantum physicist Seth Lloyd (2010-2011); and philosopher of science Daniel Dennett (2010).

More about Laurence Gonzales

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