At the Santa Fe Institute

One of the main desires that a scientist has (yes, we have wants and desires just like everyone else!) is to be recognized by other scientists. I got a taste of such recognition just a couple of weeks ago. In early December (Note: This happened in December 2017), I participated in an invitation-only event at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico (SFI from now on).

What is the SFI? I’m glad you asked. It is the “The world headquarters for complexity science”, nothing more, nothing less. For a primer on what exactly complexity science is, please go here. Briefly, complexity science encompasses pretty much everything, from the behavior of molecules, organisms, populations (remember my flock of birds post?), epidemics, economies, solar systems, and galaxies… and this is just a small sample of what is it about!

The institute has been described in many ways by different people, but my favorite description of what the SFI is comes courtesy from Rolling Stone Magazine:

“This is the Santa Fe Institute, a sort of Justice League of renegade geeks, where teams of scientists from disparate fields study the Big Questions.”

Even the main entrance is beautiful:

sfi entrance

The workshop that I formed part of was the “Liquid Brains, Solid Brains” held from December 4-5, 2017. You can read what it was about here. This event was organized by Drs. Ricard Solé, Melanie Moses, and Stephanie Forrest. The recognition part that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post refers to the fact that I was invited to the workshop because Dr. Solé read my book “The First Brain: The Neuroscience of Planarians” (I think he is the second person to read it… (:-)…) and based on his reading of my book he thought I could contribute to the group.

At first, upon receiving the email from Dr. Solé, I thought it was a practical joke. I have heard and read about the SFI for years, and they wanted me to go there? Once I realized that it was a real invitation (thanks again, Ricard!), it hit me. What an honor!

And for a brief (ok, not so brief), unforgettable moment, I was a fanboy.

sfi name tag

I guess I still am…😊

The SFI is a gorgeous place, both physically and academically. It is like an university campus with a true interdisciplinary bent (it also has a great hiking trail).

A picture of the view you say? why yes, of course!

sfi orpviewIn a “normal” institution, academic departments are usually segregated in their little corners or the world, even in predominantly research institutions. In such places, collaboration between disciplines is nice and encouraged. It is simply the nature of the beast. At the SFI collaborations across disciplines is the default state. Case in point, our group. It was composed of 13 scientists distributed as follows:

Zoologist (1)                   Plant Biologist (1)               Developmental Biologist (1)

Neuroscientist (1)         Pharmacologist (1 – me!)   Computer Scientists (2)

Physicists (4)                 And two wonderful graduate students

There was very interesting dynamic at the actual meeting. We talked about the physical aspects of complexity, about ant swarms, about how bacteria coordinate their behavior, about the formation of structural features during development, about plants, about, regeneration, about ecology, and about planarians (again, that was me!), among many other things, all of it in the context of a deceptively simple question: What is a brain? I cannot tell you much more because we are planning to publish the proceedings at some point (please see the note at the end of the post), but you surely get the idea.

As you can imagine, at first it was very much like we all were speaking in different languages, and in a near literal way, we were! During the first day we gave presentations on our own areas of expertise and as we learned of the wonderful phenomena described by our colleagues the room was full of “wows“, “whats?” and at least one “holy sh..!” (I’m sorry, that was me…). In the end, the unanimous consensus was that we all learned a lot from each other!

sfi slides

By the second day, a wonderful thing began to happen. We began to use each other’s “scientific dialects” and ideas began to coalesce. Did we reach a degree of consilience at the end of the day?


But in my opinion, we began to see what such a synthesis would look like. It was just a matter of time. Now, one of the highlights of our meeting was to establish collaborations, so in a way, our group is still working together. I am actively thinking of the ways in which we can integrate our ideas, and if my impression of our group is correct, I am not the only one. Great things are coming!

sfi pagan skauffmann

I had a very significant personal highlight. I got to meet Dr. Stuart A. Kauffman. I will let you find who he is by yourself. He attended our presentations, and what I want to emphasize is how nice he was to all of us. He learned my name, and with the correct pronunciation too! he did not call me ” One “, he called me ” Oné “.  Yes, This was another fanboy moment…(:-)

I’d love to keep my association with these fine people and I hope to be able to visit the SFI again.

I will keep you posted on what happens next. Thanks for reading me!

Note added in March 2019: An upcoming issue of the prestigious journal Philosophical Transactions containing original papers of the proceedings of our meeting will be published in the next few weeks… 😊

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