Stuart Kauffman

On August 21-22, SFI celebrates Stuart Kauffman’s contributions to complex systems science in the workshop “Thirty Years of Complex Systems Thinking.” The two-day workshop covers new research linked to Kauffman’s adventurous career.

Already a prestigious scholar by the 1980s, Kauffman moved to Santa Fe in 1986 after the Institute’s first full-scale workshop on Complex Adaptive Systems. A MacArthur Fellow, and one of SFI’s first resident researchers, he helped define the early science of complexity, developed new theories of the origins of order in biological and technical systems, and added various other tools and ideas like NK fitness landscapes and the “adjacent possible” to the complexity lexicon. Kauffman’s scientific curiosity and desire to follow ambitious questions that disregarded the traditional boundaries between domains fit well within the nascent institute and formed a key part of its lasting culture.

Kauffman remembers those years of intense collaboration and recombinant ideas, “Probably the most thrilling ten-year period of my life. We thought we were onto something, but we didn’t know what. It was like a Rorschach test...and it led to this sprawling, innovative learning from one another. I’ve never experienced it anywhere else.”

Since his early years at the Institute, much has changed — “most of the rail has been laid down since then” for complex systems science, as he puts it.

New computational techniques have grown along with the adjacent possible to understand better the potent intuitions of the initial wave of research in more rigorous terms. Kauffman’s impact can be felt around the world, both among scientists and in the broader public that was inspired by his many books on complexity.

“It’s hard to imagine the early years of SFI without Stu’s presence,” explains workshop co-organizer John Miller, who became the Institute’s first postdoc in 1988. The workshop, co-organized by Miller and Shannan Distinguished Professor and Past President Geoffrey West, brings in dozens of researchers, many of whom have co-authored with Kauffman. Their talks span the broad panorama of Kauffman’s research interests and contributions.

Read more about the workshop.