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The future of the Institute. Models

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Achievements of the Institute
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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I think just the existence of the Institute and the habits of work and so on are already a big achievement. But a number of things have been done. You're associated with one of the best. The work that you and Jim Brown and Jim Brown's student, Brian Enquist did on understanding scaling laws in biology that had been known for most of the century, I think was brilliant. You work of course as a theoretical particle physicist at Los Alamos, and Jim Brown as an ecology professor at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. You met at the Santa Fe Institute, you were introduced to each other by Mike Simmons or someone, and you started working very soon afterwards on explaining this age-old mystery in biology: why is it that for mammals all the way from a shrew to an elephant, the metabolic rate is proportional to the 3/4 power of the mass; the same for birds, the same for vascular plants and so on? And why are there another dozen associated scaling laws with different powers like 5/8ths and so on? And what you did was to form a… a model with a three dimensional space filling fractal to represent the cardiovascular system of an animal, or the respiratory system of an animal, or the vascular system of a higher plant, and to assume in accordance with reality that the smallest tube had the same diameter independent of the mass of the organism, because it was a cell size. And putting those assumptions together you explained the power loss and even... and… and produced all the necessary rational exponents, including 11/12ths in one law which hadn't even been perceived as 11/12ths, although it was known to be around .92. Sure enough it had to be 11/12ths. I thought that was marvelous. Another splendid... some other splendid work has been done by the theoretical immunology group, headed by Alan Perelson, originally trained as a physicist also, and from Los Alamos also, but although some of the people who’ve worked on it have been Santa Fe Institute employees... done a number of things, a number of… made a number of interesting, important theoretical advances in immunology. One, of course, is associated with the work of Dr David Ho and his team. Dave Ho is very famous: he was Time's 'Man of the Year', year before last and what isn't known is that the theoretical work associated with Ho's experimental and medical research was done at the Santa Fe Institute. The theoretical work was, for example, on what happens to HIV infected people during the latency period before AIDS symptoms appear. It had been thought that there was very little HIV, and very little immune system activity. It turned out that there was a lot of HIV and a lot of immune system activity, and a titanic struggle was waged until the immune system lost and AIDS symptoms appeared.  It’s really not acknowledged by most people that the theory was done at the Santa Fe Institute. Our economics researchers who were interdisciplinary too, the original economics program included physicists and biologists as well as economists. It's played some considerable role in helping to push economics away from a preoccupation with perfect equilibrium, perfect markets, perfect information, perfect rationality, perfect nonsense and so on. Of course the Santa Fe Institute wasn't alone in that, but it played a significant role, and so on and so forth. I think there have been many triumphs.

New York-born physicist Murray Gell-Mann is 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, Los Alamos, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, Jim Brown, Brian Enquist, Mike Simmons, Alan Perelson, David Ho

Duration: 4 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010