A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute. Originally published January 19, 2018.

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David Krakauer at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI). Photo by Minesh Bacrania.

“Because it’s there.” — George Mallory

“Monasteries, those scattered danger points, become the chief objectives of nocturnal flight.” — Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence

“Even in Kyoto, longing for Kyoto.” — Basho

Over the course of a creative life there are times when one craves solitude. Albert Camus suggested that “In order to under-stand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” This understanding is followed by the impulse to assemble discoveries within a critical community. For Darwin, this was provided by the Royal Navy sloop, the Beagle, about which he reminisced that “I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind,” a sentiment shared with Herman Melville, who wrote of the Pequod: “A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” …


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David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute. Photo by Minesh Bacrania.

A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute.

In what is widely considered the preeminent biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell declares, “It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives.” Johnson, of course, had more to say on the topic, making his equalizing point: “Disease generally begins that equality which death completes; the distinctions which set one man so much above another are very little perceived in the gloom of a sick chamber…” Johnson: Rambler #48 (September 1, 1750)

If there is one thing we have learned during these months of pandemic, it is that far from being indiscriminate in its actions, COVID-19 has attached itself to the lopsided superstructures of society in such a way as to brutalize some groups and only challenge others. The complex nature of this infection has revealed, through differential stresses, the inadequacy of both our understanding and control of cascading perturbations. And the great diversity of areas affected by the infection are only now being fully revealed. …


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A reconstruction of H4, John Harrison’s historic Sea Watch. Image Source.

A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute.

Our community is familiar with the considerable challenge posed throughout nautical history of determining longitude at sea. The need for both accurate celestial observation and precise time keeping — accurate data and a precise mechanical model — stymied all efforts at geolocation until the 18th century. In Isaac Newton’s 1714 report to the Board of Longitude he wrote, “But, by reason of the motion of the Ship, the Variation of Heat and Cold, Wet and Dry, and the Difference of Gravity in different Latitudes, such a watch hath not yet been made.” …


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A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute

No matter how carefully and ingeniously you rifle and forage through the mathematical archives you will not find a trace of psychoanalysis or a single mention of the periodic table in Georg Cantor’s diagonal proof of infinite sets. And this is true despite the universality of Cantor’s findings and the fact that the idea of infinity pervades all of science, mathematics, logic, and even mythology.

As it is written in the Upanishads, “there is no joy in the finite, there is joy only in the infinite.” For complicated reasons that have nothing to do with the nucleus accumbens or dopamine receptors — the putative anatomical and neurochemical basis of pleasure — we understand perfectly what these Sanskrit inscriptions are getting at without invoking their cognitive infrastructure. …


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Revolutionary (top figure) and evolutionary (bottom figure) views of scientific change. In some suitable space of ideas Kuhn describes discontinuous, revolutionary transitions between epochs of approximate stasis — normal science. Popper and Lakatos describe science as a continuous process of idea generation, refutation, and confirmation. All three agree that the average trend has a positive slope. (Image: David Krakauer)

A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute

There are broadly speaking two schools of thought examining the progress of science, one evolutionary and one revolutionary. The evolutionary schools are exemplified by the philosophers of science, Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos. Popper argued that science proceeds through a combination of bold conjecture and ruthless empirical refutation. Lakatos extended Popper’s framework adding that ideas can also receive empirical confirmation. The culture of science thereby maintains an informal score card registering wins and losses with dominant ideas receiving the highest aggregate score. This sum is the definition of objectivity. …


by Stefani Crabtree, archaeologist at the Santa Fe Institute

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A NetLogo model interface featuring imported elevation data

Imagine you come home to a house in disarray. The drawers are opened, their contents spread over the floor, and all your electronics have disappeared. Would you have a hypothesis as to what happened? Burglars, the CIA, raccoons, a lone typhoon? Each could produce a similar result.

Archaeologists are frequently challenged to explain “endpoint” scenarios, such as the messy house, with limited material evidence for the process. (For example, how would you prove that a society that lived thousands of years ago was hierarchical if there was no written language and very limited evidence that there were “haves” and “have nots”?) While your hypotheses may be encompassing, without being able to run experiments and subject them to rigorous testing your hypothesis couldn’t necessarily be proven. …


A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute

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How to describe someone for whom a narrow list of his passions would include the life of birds, the col- lapse of ancient societies, the common roots of world languages, pre-Columbian pottery, the symmetries of space and time, and New Yorker cartoons?

In a profile of the editor of the New Yorker cartoon section, Emma Allen, Andrew Goldstein wrote, “It’s an article of faith in literary circles that the proper way to read the New Yorker is to start with the cartoons and then place the magazine atop a neat pile of older issues and wait for nuclear winter to free up time to read the rest.” …


Gertrude Abercrombie, White Cat, ca. 1935–1938, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gertrude Abercrombie, White Cat, ca. 1935–1938, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gertrude Abercrombie, White Cat, ca. 1935–1938, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum

A cat is alive, a sofa is not: that much we know. But a sofa is also part of life. Information theory tells us why

By Michael Lachmann and Sara Walker

Originally published by Aeon on June 24, 2019

On a sofa in the corner of the room, a cat is purring. It seems obvious that the cat is an example of life, whereas the sofa itself is not. But should we trust our intuition? Consider this: Isaac Newton assumed a universal time flowing without external influence, and relative time measured by clocks — just as our perception tells us. Two centuries later, Albert Einstein dropped the concept of universal time, and instead introduced a concept of time measured only locally by clocks. Who before Einstein would have thought that time on the Sun, the Moon, and even on each of our watches runs at slightly different rates — that time is not a universal absolute? …


Image of a snowman
Image of a snowman
Shelley Pauls/Unsplash

By Melanie Mitchell

Originally published by Aeon on May 31, 2019

Picture yourself driving down a city street. You go around a curve, and suddenly see something in the middle of the road ahead. What should you do?

Of course, the answer depends on what that ‘something’ is. A torn paper bag, a lost shoe, or a tumbleweed? You can drive right over it without a second thought, but you’ll definitely swerve around a pile of broken glass. You’ll probably stop for a dog standing in the road but move straight into a flock of pigeons, knowing that the birds will fly out of the way. You might plough right through a pile of snow, but veer around a carefully constructed snowman. …


by SFI External Professor Fred Cooper

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Feigenbaum’s constants are universal ratios … that relate to phenomena with oscillatory (cyclic) behavior, such as swinging pendulums or heart rhythms. The most well-known one, Feigenbaum’s Delta, refers to the spacing between parameter values required to double the cycle’s length, which decreases exponentially by a factor approaching approximately 4.669. (Image/definition via Complexity Explorer)

Among all my friends, Mitchell was the most unusual and brilliant. He viewed the world through the lens of a scientist. When he walked through the forest he wondered “at what distance do the trees merge and become inseparable?” When he looked at the moon he wondered “why does the moon appear larger when it is on the horizon?” He then needed to develop a theory to explain these phenomena “from scratch.” This led him to study how vision evolved from fish to humans and why optical illusions occur as a result of “mistakes” made by our sensory cognition. When he was asked by Pete Carruthers, “what is the origin of turbulence?” Mitchell looked at the simplest nonlinear system — the logistic map where bifurcations took place. …

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Santa Fe Institute

The Santa Fe Institute is an independent research center exploring the frontiers of complex systems science.

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