A place removed from ‘the pressure of received ideas’

Murray Gell-Mann, winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on elementary particles (see Page 24 in this issue), was one of the originators of the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary research center in New Mexico that is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Gell-Mann recently addressed a group of about 150 high school students gathered at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., for Adventures of the Mind, a biennial summit for academically outstanding 15- to 18-year-olds. Gell-Mann described the origins of and philosophy behind the Santa Fe Institute’s approach to science. Tom Siegfried, Science News’ editor in chief, excerpted Gell-Mann’s remarks.

MURRAY GELL-MANN “We fixed on certain principles in starting the Santa Fe Institute…ideally we would be working toward a grand synthesis.” T. Siegfried

A group of us who were connected with the government lab at Los Alamos, either as consultants or employees, 27 or 28 years ago, used to meet and talk about starting a theoretical institute. The place we wanted it to be was Santa Fe…. We thought it would be an ideal location. People sometimes ask why we didn’t set it up across the street from Harvard or Stanford or Berkeley, and I think actually it was a good idea not to do that. Because of the pressure of received ideas. If you say something new at Harvard, you will get a lot of discouraging responses: “I already did that and decided it was wrong.” “That’s been considered carefully by lots of people and it doesn’t show any promise.” …

This pressure of received ideas at standard places is very severe. We [at Santa Fe] are free of that. Also, we get the same wonderful, brilliant visiting lecturers that they do, only in our case they talk to 15 people instead of 3,000. That makes it a much more intimate experience.

We fixed on certain principles in starting the Santa Fe Institute. One of them was that we would do mainly or entirely theoretical work…. We would try to aim for important subjects, interesting results. In fact, ideally we would be working toward a grand synthesis, like the grand synthesis represented by the genesis of the chemical elements in stars in the early universe, by the biological synthesis of genetics and evolution, or the other remarkable unifications like, for example, the standard model of elementary particle physics…. In geology you had plate tectonics, which represents a very general similar example. We were looking for something like that, but we didn’t know where to look. We didn’t know exactly how to set it up even.

We thought first of having our own graduate students, but then we decided that was probably not a good idea, because in order to get recognition for our degrees we would have to get teachers to teach a lot of standing courses, and pretty soon we’d be back in the university. So we decided not to do that. But we had graduate students, lots of them, and we’ve even had undergraduates from time to time, but they’re not ours, they’re other people’s….

What do we work on? Well, mostly it turns out from our founding seminar, 25 years ago, that an interesting set of subjects that might lead to a grand synthesis are those connected with simplicity and complexity, regularity and randomness. Evolution, learning, adaptation. All of these things form a kind of universe of problems that may indeed someday lead to a grand synthesis.

The way we operate is to be completely transdisciplinary. Problems are worked on without any regard for what field they originally come from. It doesn’t matter what they started out being. That’s quite different from what happens at most universities, where you have departments and textbooks and professional societies and sections of granting agencies all dividing people up into special compartments. We didn’t have any of that. The research is done by voluntary associations of people. They come together and decide that there’s something interesting that they can all contribute to. One of them, at least, should know something about the subject. But it’s not necessary that they all do. They can contribute their own expertise and their own ways of thinking and their own models. And it seems to work very well. It’s also a delight to be there. It’s so exciting to watch these ideas bubbling up from the bottom, not being imposed from the top….

We have no objection to the existence of all the specialized departments and publications and societies and so on. Specialization in science and even in the humanities is something that’s necessary, desirable and keeps going on, with subspecialization and sub-sub-subspecialization and so forth. And it’s all good. It needs to be supplemented, by other kinds of association. And we have one example at the Santa Fe Institute.