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Conception to birth: A gleam in one scientist’s eye

This is the first in a series of articles recounting the history of the Santa Fe Institute and the field that came to be known as complexity science, drawn from, where possible, primary sources. Special thanks to SFI Founder in Residence David Pines for his recollections and insights.

By  John German

In George Cowan's telling, the concept of a Santa Fe Institute began to form in the summer of 1956. He had been invited to the Aspen Institute, where prominent intellectuals from the arts, science, and culture gathered for freeform philosophical exchanges. He had just participated as the lone scientist in a discussion of literature.

For his part, he had chosen to talk about entropy – the tendency of systems to move toward disorder – and what insights this principle from thermodynamics might offer about the workings of human society. His talk was not well received by the other participants, who were more accustomed to the ideas of Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato than those of Boltzmann.

Nor was Cowan fully satisfied. Although he was energized by the mingling of perspectives, as a scientist he thought: “This would be an even greater idea if the discussion were driven by facts rather than essays,” he recalled many years later in a 2004 article in the SFI Bulletin.

Science serving society

Cowan had always believed the physical sciences held great promise for solving human problems. He had come from humble beginnings, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, a first-generation Jewish America. His own early scientific career had been shaped by the pressing needs of World War II, a war that had consumed his relatives in the Ukraine.

As a promising young chemist, he was among the scientists at the center of a massive and secretive race with his counterparts in Nazi Germany to be the first to harness the power of the atom and to wield that power for socio-political ends. After the war, the urgency intensified as the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a struggle for technological dominance that would last four more decades.

Thus, for Cowan, the belief that science could contribute to the commonwealth was most certainly a tangible one, and it was pregnant with human consequence. 

But in the summer of 1956, in Aspen, his talk on social entropy was probably long before its time. Certain conditions were not yet in place.

Soon, fellow chemist and novelist C.P. Snow would call for a reconciliation between scientists and humanists. The Civil Rights movement would move social issues to the forefront of the nation’s intellectual consciousness. An arms race with the Soviets, girded with the game-theoretic doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, would dominate international relations.

Great strides were to be made in physics, as well. Statistical mechanics, and probability theory in particular, would show scientists how to quantify uncertainty in dynamical systems. Among its promises was that a richer understanding of human behavior – what Cowan would later call “the daily, messy world of human affairs” – was to be within reach of the math-speaking sciences. 

Computers, too, were becoming more powerful, and some scientists began to dream of a day when they might simulate highly complex systems, even living systems, in silico.

Science versus politics

It wasn’t for three more decades, in the early 1980’s, that Cowan took the first tangible steps toward a new transdisciplinary research center. He had been invited to serve on the White House Science Council, a group of leading scientists charged with advising the White House staff and the President. 

President Reagan’s administration was engaged in a scientific (and fiscal) standoff with the Soviets over strategic missile defense. Cowan, as a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Lab, had been afforded the latitude to pursue some of his own passions. The Council, he thought, was an opportunity for scientists to lend a helpful hand to policy makers. Given the issues at hand – the Cold War, AIDS, energy supply, economic instability – it should have been.

But plain talk from scientists was, perhaps, not what the politicians in D.C. always wanted to hear. In his memoirs The Manhattan Project to the Santa Fe Institute, Cowan lamented that “it soon became clear that scientific factors mattered considerably less to the White House staff than political considerations.”

To his friend, fellow advisor, and experienced Washingtonian David Packard (of the Hewlett-Packard legacy), Cowan enquired “What sort of scientific advice is valuable to an administration that was so highly focused on its social and political agenda?” 

“Study their agenda,” Packard replied.

Wrote Cowan: “I was attracted to this notion. It reminded me of my earlier days at the Aspen Institute and [it] added legitimacy to involving physical science with the complexity and inelegance of human affairs. David was saying, in effect, we should broaden our own agenda. Surely C.P. Snow would approve.”

The Cowan Collaborative

Like Snow, Cowan had long worried about the ever-widening rift between scientists and humanists. “The intellectual world [had] divided into specialized camps that more or less ignored one another,” Cowan wrote.

But the burden for reconciliation, he believed, was on his scientific colleagues. In his memoirs he wrote, “if the gap described by Snow were to be closed, it seemed that the initiative had to be taken by natural scientists. It was physics that had made a mistaken virtue of avoiding ‘soft’ science.”

It was in this context that Cowan, in 1982, convened a group of his more senior colleagues at Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) for weekly discussions about big problems in science. These leading thinkers – including Stirling Colgate, Nick Metropolis, Herb Anderson, Darragh Nagle, Peter CaruthersRichard Slansky, and others – typically met in a conference room outside the office of Don Kerr, the Lab’s forward-thinking director.

At Cowan’s urging, the discussions centered on a concept for a new education and research institute that would tackle emerging questions that lay between traditional academic disciplines. Although there were as many notions of the Institute’s character as there were characters involved, a consensus began to emerge for a PhD-granting institute with renowned scholars as its faculty and visiting collaborators. Postdoctoral researchers would play a leading role. It would have no departments.

David Pines, a physicist from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an advisor to the Lab’s theory division, was invited in early 1983 to join the discussions, along with two or three other frequent LANL collaborators such as mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota from MIT and radiochemist Tony Turkevich from the University of Chicago.

“At the time the concept was to create a new kind of teaching institution for graduate students, perhaps modeled after the Salk Institute or the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton,” says Pines. “We thought we could do better. We wanted to attack problems that cut across many fields, problems like human behavior and cognition. It was all about really good people who were crossing disciplines.”

The power of prestige

As a member of the National Academies, Pines knew nearly every leading scientist in America, and he had been involved in the creation of other successful academic programs. He soon invited Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann, the gregarious Caltech physicist, to the discussions.

The prestige of Gell-Mann, Pines, Anderson, Metropolis, and others would prove to be a key factor in attracting top minds to the fledgling institute, Cowan said. “They knew everyone,” Cowan wrote. “They could just pick up the phone.”

Pines, whose present-day title is SFI Co-Founder In Residence, today calls the founders group the “Cowan Collaborative.” “It was a truly collaborative effort, with George guiding our discussions,” he says. “He practiced true leadership. He had the vision, but most of the time he did not talk.”

He notes that some contemporary tellings of the Institute’s pre-history have overemphasized the group’s dissatisfaction with traditional academia. “We weren’t disillusioned,” he says. “But we recognized that universities were ill-equipped to nurture emerging new fields, and we were thinking about how we could help them grow. If we could create an institution where they could flourish, we thought we could make a difference.”

A character takes shape

As the discussions continued in Los Alamos, the Collaborative took steps to give the notional institute a form. Cowan secured a post office box in Santa Fe, P.O. Box 9020. The members began to reach out to potential backers in Santa Fe, Los Alamos, and Albuquerque. Helene Slansky, wife of LANL senior fellow Richard Slansky, volunteered to play an organizational role. 

The first Institute phone was in the Slansky bedroom, recalls Helene, who first heard about the Institute from Gell-Mann in 1983 during a senior fellows dinner. “He explained that it was difficult to get funding for cross-disciplinary science,” she says. “If a physicist and a biologist wanted to work together, they would have to request funding from either the physics or biology department. Government agencies weren’t going to fund an institute without a track record. It made a lot of sense to me.” 

The founders always wanted to name the new center the “Santa Fe Institute.” But a local treatment center for recovering alcoholics already held claim to the name. In May 1984 the Institute was incorporated under the alternative name “Rio Grande Institute.” (Months later, Cowan purchased the preferred name “Santa Fe Institute” from the struggling treatment center for $5,000 and changed the Institute’s name to the “Santa Fe Institute for Science.”)

In summer 1984, there were still many questions, of course. The founders group knew private funding would be needed to foster the independent nature they envisioned for the new center. They knew it would need a physical presence in Santa Fe, and thus an attractive building and a staff. There was little consensus regarding what scientific themes the center would tackle. 

“Everybody had their favorite topics,” Pines says. “Mine was to have an institution without fiefdoms and to find and bring in people like us, but 30, 40, 50 years younger.”

By far the biggest obstacle, says Pines, was that “we had no audience.” 

Bringing in the best

Herb Anderson offered a possible solution. He suggested a workshop in Santa Fe with as many top scientists as would participate. “The idea was to bounce our idea off of people and see what they thought of our game plan,” says Pines.

That plan included developing networks of researchers around particular cross-disciplinary topics of interest to the scientific community. Wrote Cowan: “Herb Anderson said, ‘Pick out the best people, bring them in, and ask them to tell us what interests them’…We were picking the people, not the topics.”

Assuming the rate of acceptance would be low, the organizers extended many invitations. To their surprise, says Pines, “about 90 percent of the people we asked accepted.”

“Once they started putting out invitations we got an incredible amount of interest from all over the U.S., people from Europe,” says Helene Slansky, who helped coordinate the workshops along with Herb Anderson, the workshops’ host. “The cast of characters was amazing.”

To accommodate the larger crowd, the founders asked Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research for the use of SAR’s meeting room. (So began an informal institutional tie that continues to this day.) Two workshops were scheduled rather than one.

The workshops, which took place in late October and early November 1984, were titled “Emerging Syntheses in Science.” They are memorialized in a printed volume by the same name, SFI’s first tangible scientific product.

“I would argue that the founding workshops were the beginning of the Institute,” says Pines. “Before the workshops, we didn’t know if our institute was going to fly or flop. After the workshops, we knew we were on to something. There was a lot of energy and support. All we needed was a few million dollars, a building, a staff, and a great deal of luck.”

Jump to the next article in the series: 1984-1987 - Something from nothing: SFI emerges and synthesizes

Return to the SFI@30 history page