Cormac McCarthy mixin’ it up with Sante Fe science

While I have my doubts about how much progress the permanent inhabitants of the Santa Fe Institute actually make, this is my kind of hang-out, progress be damned:

From Newsweek via The Daily Beast

The Santa Fe Institute was founded in 1984 by a group of scientists frustrated with the narrow disciplinary confines of academia. They wanted to tackle big questions that spanned different fields, and they felt the only way these questions could be posed and solved was through the intermingling of scientists of all kinds: physicists, biologists, economists, anthropologists, and many others.

Almost three decades after its founding, the institute now has 12 resident faculty members whose interests range from the archaeology of the American Southwest to the physics of cities. Various educational programs and conferences supply fresh infusions of graduate students, post-docs, and professors from around the country. Over the last few years SFI has even extended the logic of collaboration further by establishing a regular fellowship to bring a novelist, playwright, philosopher, or other humanist to the institute. Though he’s technically a member of the board of trustees, Cormac McCarthy has also become a vital part of the intellectual atmosphere.

This part struck me as wishful thinking:

In addition to aesthetics, McCarthy noted a deeper link between great science and great writing. “Both involve curiosity, taking risks, thinking in an adventurous manner, and being willing to say something 9/10ths of people will say is wrong.”

That does not resemble in any way the scientific community that I experience, as much as I would like it to. What is described in the article is a fantasy version of how science works – or maybe how it worked at some point. It’s what happens if you remove the pressure to publish, get your grants funded, and find tenure-track jobs. Mostly, it’s a luxury for big-name scientists who don’t have to worry about career building. I’m not sure how the graduate students and postdocs fare there, especially ones who might try to find employment in a life sciences department.

Taking real risks, even if they turn out well, does not lead to the publication frequency necessary to survive in a overcrowded field. What you do is find something relatively easy, and do it over and over and over until you have job security.

h/t tragos


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