In February 2015, Holger Fröhlich and Patrick Strattner from Germany's brand eins magazine journeyed to Santa Fe to sample the quirky and innovative research culture of SFI. Here is Fröhlich's "1+1=3" from brand eins, translated into English by SFI volunteer Jennifer van Velkinburgh and Omidyar Fellow Marion Dumas:
Scientists and researchers at the Santa Fe Institute write their own rules, especially when it comes to setting up cross-discipline collaborations ⎯ and the results are astonishing.
One thousand four hundred kilometers east of Hollywood there exists a kind of research institute that one would only dream to see in the movies. Here, three young men in jeans and T-shirts stand in the hallway, bent over a table so large it spans the entire wall space; they are pondering a complicated equation. One leans forward and replaces a few values above the fraction stroke, and the other two grin and give nods of satisfaction. In the background, two women sit just beyond the perpetually open door of a shared office discussing a column of figures coming up on a computer monitor, and a man is kneeling at one of the floor-to-ceiling windows , which overlooks a courtyard, writing formulas on the glass pane with a red marker.
This cinematic cliché of brilliant scholars at work is the reality of academic life at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in New Mexico. Founded in 1984 by a handful of elderly and highly decorated scientists who recognized the problems of our time to be more complex than commonly assumed, the Institute was the first of its kind devoted to the study of complex systems. The founders’ guiding idea: a world made of mutual interdependencies and influences cannot be understood with linear thinking; A does not inevitably and simply lead to B.
They wanted SFI to decrypt the complexity of the world, so they had to seek new approaches, once donors were found to support this private research institute. It was clear from the start that no scientist could undertake a task of such magnitude single-handedly. Moreover, this kind of research would be about nothing less than explaining the world in formulas. Therefore, the Institute’s founders ultimately posited that cooperation among researchers, crossing all disciplinary boundaries, was not only desired but an absolute requirement; and, these pioneers set forth, hoping to create something new.
The real innovation: talking to each other
Three decades later, the founders’ hopes have become a reality. The SFI has acquired a reputation as the world’s premier institute for interdisciplinary study of complex systems. For example, the field of econophysics arose from the SFI and has since led to the discovery of exponential and power law distribution in the economy. The collaboration of physicists and economists, applying methods and theories of physics to economic problems, allowed for an innovative understanding of the nonlinear dynamics of economic systems. Without such cross-disciplinary exchange, neither side would have been capable of discovering these new models or theories.
Although much remains to be done, Jeremy Sabloff, the SFI’s incumbent president, acknowledges that the work to date has helped to demonstrate the benefits of cooperation within mainstream academia. However, at conventional universities, many researchers still see their next-door colleagues as competitors and insulate themselves in order to secure a small lead ahead; at such places it is almost certain that anyone who wrote their ideas on a window in a common space would be bawled out. By now people understand that new insights come about if physicists, archeologists, computer scientists and biologists exchange their research. Sabloff credits his institute for these pioneering achievements.
Situated away from the many distractions of modern urban society, SFI is set on a hilltop, situated among the open natural landscape of Santa Fe. The offices of the employees are small, but the building’s corridors, lounges and meeting rooms are spacious, and all are inviting. Every window provides expansive views of the winding property, and placed beneath each one are dry erase markers, ready to publicly capture brainstorms and ideas, and invite passing colleagues to debate them. The resulting mathematical theories and critiques remain superimposed over the landscape seen through the windows, much like graffiti on the New York subway cars of the eighties.
Numbers and formulas have become the lingua franca of the SFI. When an archaeologist and an computer scientist communicate about an issue, they cross their ideas in their common language, mathematics.
In the early days of the Institute, this common language did not exist. The illustrious founders George Cowen, the chemist and co-developer of the atomic bomb, and Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate in physics, had been immersed in their natural science research but keenly interested in many social science questions. At that time, however, researchers in the so-called hard and soft sciences might as well have lived on other planets: each practiced by their own laws that were incomprehensible in the other’s language. Deep exchange seemed impossible. To the natural scientists, the soft sciences seemed headless and lacking structure. Young scholars could not challenge this notion without running the risk of being ridiculed by their peers and not taken seriously. Hence, th incontestable professional reputation of SFI's pioneering scholars was very important to help break these barriers, get involved in the necessary but thorny exchanges between disciplines and prove to the world how helpful cooperation can be to overcome that which separates us.
The first meetings, conducted without a common language, were shaped by circumlocutions, comparisons and symbols, sometimes apt and sometimes abstruse, as pokes in the fog, searching for new territory. Fittingly, in 1987, the Institute resided in the former convent Cristo Rey, which the Spanish conquerors had built upon a place of worship of the Pueblo Indians who had settled in region in the 12th century; their adobe construction dominates the Santa Fe cityscape to this day.
Since 1994, however, the SFI campus has been located at the foot of a mountain chain called Sangre de Cristo, the blood of Christ. The property and buildings once belonged to the US Secretary of War Patrick Hurley, who, along with his family, resided in it 1946 and 1952. Mr. Hurley was a three-time candidate for a Senate seat for the state of New Mexico - but lost every time. His election battles resulted in denial of the Republican party from celebrating on his expansive property overlooking Santa Fe. The residence’s ballroom, where the Hurley’s held receptions for the high and mighty of society, is now the seminar room of the Institute. The residence’s library has remained intact, however, but the book collection has been completely replaced.
A Real Sensation: Urban Scaling Theory
"The search for a common language is the most serious and at the same time the most fruitful task," says Jennifer Dunne, Vice President for Science at SFI. "Here, we use one word to express many completely different meanings." To exemplify the challenge this poses to interdisciplinary research, she recollects an interdisciplinary research group that wanted to determine what happens to systems when changing their size. The systems were as different as the academic background of the participants: biologists researching the metabolic composition of small and large mammals, engineers researching the weight of a bridge in relation to its length, and economists researching the impact of investment on economic growth. "Sometimes I would hear their spirited discussions in my office," says Dunne.
It took an entire year for these researchers to find a common language. The better they understood each other, though, the more momentum the project took on. This project soon after evolved into a separate branch of research and produced several sensational findings, including the Urban Scaling Theory. Briefly, this theory proposes that prosperity in growing cities rises faster than the number of inhabitants. Policy-makers have in the meantime also recognized that the dynamics of cities must be better understood, and they use the support of the insights coming out of Santa Fe.
A Real Problem: The Future of Urbanization
How do slums form? What causes community? How are power and water supplies secured for a city? Finding answers to these questions is becoming more urgent with each passing year, as populations across the world are abandoning rural regions and the rural exodus is resulting in megacities that are continuing to grow. The problems of urbanization has been an interest to SFI researchers since its founding. Their thesis states that fundamental mathematical principles underlie the infrastructure and the social structure of any city, and it has held up to empirical testing up to this point. Yet the methods employed are so complicated that Jennifer Dunne did not even attempt to explain them.
The basic research at SFI often yields groundbreaking results, which can be incomprehensible to laymen. As Jennifer Dunn explains, their significance may only be recognized by the larger public years later, after they have formed the basis for further discoveries and inventions that have impact in the “real world.” As she talks about this “real” world, she points with her index finger to the window of her office, its view of the deserted hillside, overgrown with wild sagebrush and filled with the sounds of howling coyotes at dusk. This is the typical natural state of Santa Fe, located at an altitude of 2000 meters in the lee of the Rocky Mountains.
To ensure that the nearly 30 employees and various academic visitors do not stay ensconced within their offices, several rituals of campus life have been developed to promote interaction and activity. At precisely twelve noon, everyone meets for lunch, and at 3 o'clock they return for a casual tea time gathering ⎯ just like in a traditional family. Since a caterer delivers the food, the scholars use the break time for productive exchanges with each other, instead of taking off alone in their private cars to go into town for lunch.
At one of these gatherings on the shaded patio, I sat at a long table fully occupiedby a group of postdocs. A Swiss postdoc was discussing the analysis of local mobile phone data. He says the data seems interesting but he still has no idea what exactly to do with it. Another postdoc, a young physicist from Quebec, asks whether the data show a similar pattern to data from other cities. His neighbor – an anthropologist called Marcus Hamilton – draws a parallel with archaic cultures and how their lives were organized. He states that the mobile data makes him curious, precisely because they are unknown territory for him. This exchange, featuring an exchange between archaeological and anthropological knowledge and expertise on mega-cities, embodies the core concept of SFI. When it comes to subjects as important as the future of our civilization, all types of expertise can be useful.
A Real Consequence: Nobody is Allowed to Stay Long
Their studies, ranging from hunter-gatherers in prehistoric times to the heart of modern metropolises, indicate for example that there is a relationship between growth and the rate of innovation Consider this thesis: the larger a society , the closer its members work together and the higher the rate of groundbreaking inventions. These innovations are necessary for the survival of the group, because as the group grows it eventually pushes against environmental boundaries. In the case of communities, the agriculture, animal husbandry, trade and commerce were developed by small populations of hunter-gatherers that had learned to use the arable land efficiently. This chain of growth leading to innovation can be continued up to the megacities of today.
The next step in this evolution of the natural frontier was achieved by the consumption of fossil fuels, says Hamilton. "By the time the stocks are exhausted, we must have invented something new ⎯ otherwise all this will end. This will come quite soon." He looks off in the winter sun and smiles, as if he had just been talking about the upcoming holiday and not the impending demise of mankind. "Sooner or later we will die," he adds. "No species survives forever."
More than ten years ago, Hamilton left his London home for New Mexico. In the evenings, he enjoys the guitar at a bar in Santa Fe. He says that he loves life among the aging hippies who moved from California to seek out the "Land of Enchantment”, where they can still afford a house with a garden on their pension and live close to the more than 200 art galleries in this small city; although Santa Fe is the oldest city settlement in US territory, it currently has only around 80 000 inhabitants. Hamilton is one of twelve postdocs in residence at the Institute. The position is limited to three years and may be renewed once. Even tenured professors cannot be in residence at the Institute for longer than ten years.
"There is no one here set up comfortably," said the Vice President Jennifer Dunne, who herself will remain in her position for only three years. "We see ourselves as the nucleus of interdisciplinary research," she says. "We train and build bridges for our thoughts to reach the world." The continual exchange of researchers ensures a supply of fresh ideas and questions.
The latest addition to the SFI is Laurent Dufresne-Hébert. The 27-year-old studied theoretical physics in Université Laval in Quebec, but eventually grew bored of his work on lasers and the same old work days spent in a windowless lab. On the side, he devoted some of his time to the study of social networks – a very young interdisciplinary field.
Over a beer, a biologist friend had told him that it was well known that syphilis epidemics occur in regular seven-year cycles – but that the reason for this pattern was unknown. Hébert-Dufresne looked into the data on this phenomenon that had been generated by the biologists, and came up with an amazing finding when he fed this data into his network analysis framework. "The simple explanation,” says Hébert-Dufresne, “syphilis is disgusting. Unlike the flu, it causes couples to split up and good friends to stay at a distance." When he ran the medical data of infection and healing time with information about the social behavior of human beings in relationships, he came up with almost exactly seven years. Using his professional perspectives as a physicist, he was able to address a problem in biology. "Everything is obvious - once you know the solution," Duncan Watts once said, a pioneer of research into complex systems.
Hébert-Dufresne has only been at the SFI since October 2014. "Here, science is practiced as I have always dreamed," he says. He spends his time at the Fussball table with colleagues or alone walking through the nearby pine forest to organize his thoughts. Only when he has a concrete idea does he sit down in the office at the computer.
He heard about SFI for the first time after a friend and fellow student had attended the Institute’s Summer School. His friend described the experience as life-changing. The following year, Hébert-Dufresne applied. About his being accepted as one of 60 among 250 applicants, he says he feels lucky. "The Institute has changed my life as well," he reflects while walking through his musing grove behind the campus, "and that's not only because I met the love of my life here." A year later, he sat down to be considered among 300 applicants for the three postdoctoral positions that are awarded each year.
Even 30 years after its founding, the spirit of breaking into unchartered intellectual territory can still be felt on the campus. Certainly, the constant coming and going and the relatively low average age of the window-writing researchers contribute to it. This atmosphere does not only attract scientists in the narrow sense of the world. The best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy spends almost every evening sitting in front of his typewriter in the previous library of the US war minister whose house is now the SFI campus. Here, he debates with scholars about the downfall of mankind. He values the young, creative spirit of the Institute, and some of his thoughts from these conversations flow into his darker novels, like "No Country for Old Men".
McCarthy is an old friend of co-founder Murray Gell-Mann and other supporters of the Institute. As a private, non-profit research facility, the SFI’s funding mainly comes from two sources, donations from private individuals and foundations, and government grants and partnerships with companies. "But we take no money from military institutions, yet we are guided by companies for product research" “We take neither money from military institutions, nor do we let ourselves be guided by the product development needs of companies. President Jeremy Sabloff says. Furthermore, all research findings are published.
True Exception: In the Office, a Blackboard All to Himself
Not every project comes to a successful end. "Of course, we run from time to time into a dead end," says Vice President Dunne. Lee Fleming, aprofessor at Harvard Business School, makes a comparison between the traditional homogeneous research working groups to those at the SFI. He says that the conventional approach is easier to calculate, because it produces predictable results. Interdisciplinary research groups have a greater risk of failure, but when successful their findings are often groundbreaking and have more far-reaching implications.
Interdisciplinarity also has downsides for Scientists who undertake this research. David Wolpert, professor at SFI, says that in order to work interdisciplinarily he had to give up on a more prestigious career path. "If you are a researcher in a field that you enjoy, do you have to dedicate your entire life to a tiny but complex problem, working only with the experts?" He lacked the discipline to do this. Whenever he comes across an interesting problem, it takes him prisoner; the less he knows about the problem at the beginning, the stranger it is, the more exciting he finds it.
In the eighties and early nineties, Wolpert was one of the pioneers of research into artificial intelligence and machine learning. But when he took a job as a postdoctoral fellow at the SFI in 1991, he became infected by its interdisciplinary spirit. "If I had stayed on my original path, stubbornly continuing to research my original topic, I would probably have become a big shot in that field," he says. Yet, his change of direction has definitely been fruitful: Wolpert has received many awards, holds three patents, is author of several books and countless essays and the namesake of the no-free-lunch theorem about the natural limits of machine learning. "I just explore what interests me," he says. "For everything else, life is too short."
Wolpert is currently further developing game theory, with the goal of eventually applying it to the control of unmanned aircraft in complex environmental conditions. Again and again he exchanges ideas with biologists, economists and computer scientists. But in his office he has a large blackboard, all for himself. In the calm of his office, he uses it develop new formulas based on the ideas kicked off by his discussions.
There are the niches in this world where greatness thrives, and the Santa Fe Institute is one of them.
Read the article (in German) in brand eins (August 2015)