Posted: Oct 11, 2006 11:44 pm
a friend sent me this today...
WIRED Issue 14.10 - October 2006
Think Tank Cowboy
HIGH ABOVE SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO, in a remote building surrounded by piñon trees and sagebrush, a woman's voice crackles over an intercom. "Hello everyone," she coos, "time for tea." Intricate Native American rugs cover the floors. Cristo prints hang in the lobby. But this is no southwestern day spa. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann wanders into the kitchen alongside a paleobiologist from the Smithsonian. Books on subjects like linear systems and dynamics in human primate societies line the library shelves.
Afternoon tea is one of the enduring conventions of this unconventional place, the Santa Fe Institute. Since its founding in 1984, the nonprofit research center has united top minds from diverse fields to study cellular biology, computer networks, and other systems that underlie our lives. The patterns they've discovered have illuminated some of the most pressing issues of our time and, along the way, served as the basis for what's now called the science of complexity. Support for the revolving cast of about 35 investigators, who generally stay between three and six months, comes from corporate and private sources. Perhaps the most surprising discovery lurking inside SFI is the gray-haired man in cowboy boots and jeans nibbling on a cookie in the kitchen. He's Cormac McCarthy, the acclaimed and reclusive novelist, who has quietly become the institute's unlikely muse. "As a writer, he represents what we want our scientists to be," SFI president Geoffrey West says. "He's a maverick."
McCarthy, 73, is known for his literary explorations of violence and the American West in books like All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian. But he has more in common with the researchers than his fans might think. McCarthy harbors a deep interest in science, and he admires his SFI colleagues' willingness to take risks. "These are people who aren't afraid to color outside the lines," he says.
McCarthy first learned about SFI from Gell-Mann, whom he met in 1989 at a dinner for MacArthur genius grant recipients. The writer soon began hanging out at the institute, where he found many other like minds. By day, geeks ran computer simulations of stock markets and bird flocks. By night, they discussed the connections over blue-corn enchiladas. "You walked in and the place hummed," McCarthy says. In 1999, he left Texas for Sante Fe to be close to the institute.
While he insists that his chief duties are "to take tea and have lunch," McCarthy has become a fixture at SFI. On any given day, you might find him copyediting a scientist's manuscript or at the typewriter working on his own books. Spending time around the researchers has, he says, "made me more rigorous." Indeed, his most recent novels – including the new postapocalyptic thriller The Road – have been praised for their lean power.
McCarthy kept an office at SFI until December, when he temporarily gave it up, he says, because he was "having too much fun" – and not getting enough writing done. But he's hardly given up on the place. Though he has granted only two interviews in his long career, he's meeting with me, in part, to help spread the word about the institute. The family is aging, he says, and new blood is needed. "If there are young people out there doing interesting things," McCarthy says, "they should be here."
After tea, the researchers return to their work on complexity, but a more simple problem catches McCarthy's attention. Down the hall, two scientists are pushing a photocopier up a makeshift ramp. McCarthy excuses himself, squeezes in beside them, and puts his weight behind the machine.
– David Kushner