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Early days at Santa Fe


The structure at Santa Fe
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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I assumed for a very long time that we would have permanent professors, like the Salk Institute, the Institute for Advanced Study, and so on. Our institute would not resemble those because there most of the work is individual rather than co-operative, but I thought it would resemble those institutions in having a considerable number of senior positions including some permanent positions, and I thought we could raise an endowment of one to two hundred million, since there were so many wealthy people and if we persuaded… if we explained the situation properly they might be willing to give very large sums of money for a new exciting adventure, including very excellent people. Well it didn't work out that way. First of all, up to the present time, we have never tapped large sources of private funds, although we've met many people who've been generous on a smaller scale. And second, our community, our Santa Fe Institute has gradually moved away from the idea of having a number of permanent people and now, in fact, wants to have no senior appointments, no long-term senior appointments whatsoever, let alone permanent ones. So that has gone in a different direction, and I think mostly that's to the good, although this latest decision to get rid of all long-term senior positions I think is a silly one. But I think the movement away from a fixed… a large fixed staff was probably wise. And of course it was necessary; we never raised enough money for it anyway, but I think besides that it was a good thing.

[Q] Why? Do you want to expand on that a little bit, why..?

Well, I think we need to retain some flexibility, some variability, adaptability, and I think it would be harder if we had a lot of people. After all, I mean…But… but the idea of abolishing the senior positions is silly, in my opinion, for several reasons. First of all, you need some continuity for research contracts and that sort of thing. Second, I think you need continuity in order… in order for the research ideas to persist a little bit. And third, I think that it's very hard to get anyone to leave a university, to leave a senior position in a university for a number of years without a reasonable assurance of a fairly long run, even if there's no tenure. Finally, I think that these integrative studies are studies that favor somewhat older people, not… not exclusively of course, we need many young people, but I think that the advantage of youth is not so great in these integrative studies and also in data-rich fields, the advantage is not so great as the advantage of youth in fields that are data poor, idea rich, changing very rapidly, like elementary particle theory or mathematics. So I… I don't agree with that latest decision, but the general idea of abandoning the structure of a… of a regular institute I think was… was a good one.

New York-born physicist Murray Gell-Mann (1929-2019) was known for his creation of the eightfold way, an ordering system for subatomic particles, comparable to the periodic table. His discovery of the omega-minus particle filled a gap in the system, brought the theory wide acceptance and led to Gell-Mann's winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969.

Listeners: Geoffrey West

Geoffrey West is a Staff Member, Fellow, and Program Manager for High Energy Physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is also a member of The Santa Fe Institute. He is a native of England and was educated at Cambridge University (B.A. 1961). He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1966 followed by post-doctoral appointments at Cornell and Harvard Universities. He returned to Stanford as a faculty member in 1970. He left to build and lead the Theoretical High Energy Physics Group at Los Alamos. He has numerous scientific publications including the editing of three books. His primary interest has been in fundamental questions in Physics, especially those concerning the elementary particles and their interactions. His long-term fascination in general scaling phenomena grew out of his work on scaling in quantum chromodynamics and the unification of all forces of nature. In 1996 this evolved into the highly productive collaboration with James Brown and Brian Enquist on the origin of allometric scaling laws in biology and the development of realistic quantitative models that analyse the influence of size on the structural and functional design of organisms.

Tags: Santa Fe Institute, Salk Institute, Institute for Advance Study, endowment

Duration: 3 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010