InSightFoto for the Santa Fe Institute

Sam was a restless, brilliant, and gracious polymath who became an important member of our community, an unlikely and passionate interlocutor at the Santa Fe Institute, and a friend with whom we would discuss novels, poetry, folk music, and the challenges of our too often thwarted efforts at creativity. He was one of the most seductive people I have met and we shall all miss him very much.

Sam’s office was in the Institute library where we could hear him typing out essays and plays on his Olympia SM9. When Cormac McCarthy and Sam worked in adjoining rooms of the library, the Institute resounded like a nineteenth-century steel mill — deafening hammering of dueling Olivettis and Olympias.

I was first introduced to Sam by our mutual friend Valerie Plame after Sam had played her father in the cinematic adaptation of her book, Fair Game. When inviting Sam to become a Miller Scholar at SFI, his first question to me was whether there would be sufficient desk space for a typewriter. I assured him that this would not be a problem — it had certainly never deterred Cormac McCarthy. The whole idea of a computer or word processor was anathema to Sam who enjoyed the organic pace of mechanical instruments.

Over the course of several years, Sam participated in discussions, seminars, and conferences at SFI. Science was never his core interest but the deeper mysteries of existence, the anguish of conscious life, and our attempts to express natural beauty through language and mathematics captivated him. He was particularly drawn to poetic scientific expression, and asked me to write down a line I had found in the great classicist and geometer Darcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form: “It behooves us always to remember that in physics it has taken great men to discover simple things. They are very great names indeed which we couple with the explanation of the path of a stone, the droop of a chain, the tints of a bubble, the shadows in a cup.”

Visiting scientists to SFI often express surprise when meeting artist and writer scholars. But it takes only an instant to identify a kindred spirit — someone who has made the decision to pursue beauty and truth above all else, committed to a compelling idea and its near perfect expression — “regarding the shadows in a cup.” Sam came to SFI a curious, autodidactic nomad and he stayed on as scholar and settler.

David Krakauer
President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems
Santa Fe Institute

Read the obituary on (August 1, 2017)

Listen to the Last Word on BBC Radio4 (August 4, 2017, 21:06-28:00)

Read David Krakauer's tribute to Sam Shepard in Nautilus (August 4, 2017)