SFI 25th Anniversary Celebration
November 16, 2009 Leave a comment
It certainly wasn’t planned, but our decision to relocate to Santa Fe earlier this year combining with many years of work that included overlapping interests with Santa Fe Institute (SFI), several shared relationships, and the ‘invisible hand’ of chance all apparently had something to do with my attending this year’s annual conference at SFI. I’m glad I was able to attend for a number of reasons.
The conference celebrated a convergence of related events in time — 25th anniversary of SFI, with a theme of evolution in a nod to the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin (Feb 12, 1809), but the underlying theme and lecture by the conference organizer — David Krakauer, chair of faculty — was the evolution of evolutionary theory, and I would add semantics of evolution (meaning), which is where the conference debate itself evolved by the end. Today’s use of the word ‘evolution’ seems to be limitless, although no other English word seems appropriate to describe a similar process in economics, sociology, technology, etc. etc. etc. One can certainly argue that everything man caused is by extension evolutionary, as we are biological life forms, but it doesn’t do much good when drilling down for learning.
Among the lectures for this two + day conference were: Darwin and Turing (Daniel Dennett), Malaria (Caroline Buckee), agent based paradigm (Robert Axtell), conflict (Jessica Flack), 2009 response to the H1N1 pandemic (Laureen Ancel Meyers), evolution of evolutionary theory (David Krakauer), web engineering (Graham Spencer – Google), evolution of human languages (Murray Gell-Mann), and a group led by J. Doyne Farmer on whether economics is a branch of evolutionary theory, or something else entirely.
I made a comment on the economic question that went something like the following… I moderated a very similar forum (in our GWIN Pro network) virtually a decade ago that included some of the participants cited (Krugman’s paper of a decade ago for example– I exchanged a few emails comparing biology and economics with Krugman during that era), and I have since come to the conclusion that economics is more like God, and biological evolution more like nature. The income and cost disparities were widely known (financial crisis was near the core of the debate), so from a crises prevention perspective– the financial crisis appeared intentionally self-destructive (aggregate). Before markets can work and behavioral economics can be credible, participants must have a choice (Alluding to the earlier comments by Doyne that implied a correlation between monopolies and crises – at least I took it that way).
Please understand the context in which I used the word God here; taking from Stewart Brand’s opening lecture when speaking about managing the world’s ecology — similarly in economics (directly interconnected to ecology), we are essentially acting as a God and so had best become good at it. I am not speaking here in the spiritual sense, but rather power and intent. I was surprised at the positive response to my comment.
I also attended the business network meeting, which was a much smaller sub-group primarily of reps from corp giants who are willing and able to pay the substantial annual subscription. SFI has gone through a change in management and reevaluation during the past year, including the business network. SFI was intentionally founded as an ongoing experimental work in progress, and has apparently gone through an important period of evolution itself recently.
From my perspective there are three primary strengths of SFI, which I have followed for 15 years or so off and on, consuming much of what is made publicly available.
- The model is a very small core supported by external faculty around the world, and an independent institute that intentionally explores areas that are overlooked by academia, which tends to herd towards trendy science. So SFI is neither conventional nor large and bureaucratic– for that reason alone they attract many of the world’s leading scientists. Most of the big contributions to science, including Darwin, were largely outcasts of the academic mainstream at the time.
- The interdisciplinary focus allows researchers to learn from each other and work together on many of the really big problems facing the planet, often temporarily so that they maintain their long-term job — usually at a major university. I have invested a great deal of time and design on this issue.
- The location now on top of a small hill overlooking Santa Fe with the southern Rockies staring down provides an excellent mix of culture, nature, solitude, and peers.
It’s not by accident that LANL scientists enjoy the area so much. A long rich history combined with modern art, culture, and excellent food doesn’t hurt, and importantly what everyone cites over and over again — 15 minutes to anywhere in town is actually more like a half hour, but certainly influences me. It has always seemed obvious to me that smart people attempting to get things done cannot enjoy long commutes, raising many questions….. did I mention climate?
The conference wound up on Sat. (11/14/09) night with a VIP dinner of the combined SFI and SF Symphony Orchestra, which is also celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and like SFI and most other non-profits, no doubt experienced some tough times in the past year with funding.
It turns out that Felix Mendelssohn (a German music prodigy who found success in England) was also born in early Feb of 1809, so after dinner at the Eldorado Hotel, everyone walked a block down the street to the Lensic Theatre to enjoy a concert of Mendelssohn’s music with actors playing Darwin and Mendelssohn.
It was the first time I had been in the Lensic or attended a concert by the Santa Fe Symphony — very impressive for a city of any size. As if nature were conspiring with the synchronization of the events, when the concert ended we walked into the street to find it snowing; beautiful with the lights of SF and a fitting end to an enjoyable few days for many.