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Conservation. The MacArthur Foundation


Information overload. A crude look at the whole (Part 2)
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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It's not just a matter of interdisciplinary work; it's a matter of subject matter as well. In the policy arena, for example, we have military and diplomatic and political considerations such as are discussed in the journal Foreign Affairs, or discussed by the Council on Foreign Relations; there are also economic matters and social matters which are sometimes discussed in those circles, but less; and then there are environmental, demographic, ideological, informational, institutional issues, and all of these are in strong interaction with one another. And the trouble is they're mostly treated separately. A leader, a CEO or a Prime Minister or a Queen has to integrate these things, perhaps, but it's difficult for a leader…  single leader to do all these things in his or her head when most of the other people are specialists in some realm or other. I think we need to cultivate the habit of synthesizing, of working not only across fields but across different sorts of subject matter, to take a crude look at the whole, and I've tried to encourage that in many different places, including the Santa Fe Institute. But the Santa Fe Institute doesn't do that much work on real situations with lots of historical… historically specific data and so on, but there are other places that do. Scenario writing is one mode of operation that may be helpful, and if scenario writing identifies tubes of future histories with various different circumstances aligned in one way in one tube and a different way in another tube and so on, there's still the question of the branching of those tubes and how to estimate the probabilities at the… at each nexus where the… where the tubes branch, and for that one could use, perhaps some day, computer modeling and things of that kind. But it's all very, very complex and difficult to… to do. Nevertheless I think we should make a start on it. I helped to inspire Project 2050, which was a collaborative effort among the World Resources Institute, the foreign policy part of Brookings, the Brookings Institution, and to some extent the Santa Fe Institute. But it was very badly under-funded and didn't really go to completion, but a number of worthwhile things were done about trying to understand in a… an integrated holistic way, what might, what the human race might do to achieve greater sustainability in the course of the twenty-first century, which is when it really has to happen because now is the time when we've reached the inflexion point in total human population and the rate of increase is beginning to decrease. It's the time when we've reached the stage where human beings can make changes of order one in the whole globe, whether through unwise economic activity or through destructive war; and this is clearly the time when if a set of transitions to a more sustainable world is to occur, they must occur. So Project 2050 was supposed to think in a way that would integrate across all these different kinds of subject matter about sustainability, where sustainability is defined not just in environmental, demographic and economic terms, but also in political, social, diplomatic, military, ideological, informational, institutional terms. Transitions would have to occur in all these domains and they're all closely linked, strongly interacting with one another. Well now that the project ran out of money some things are beginning to appear, actually. It's paradoxical. A book called Which World? by Alan Hammond of the World Resources Institute is about to appear and it will summarize some of the conclusions of Project 2050 and try to take a crude look at the whole, but I think we need a great deal more of that, and that's part of this necessary revolution in… in the production of skilled intermediaries to extract knowledge and understanding and a little wisdom from all these so-called data, from all this so-called information.

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: Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations, Santa Fe Institute, Project 2050, World Resources Institute, Brookings Institution, Which World, Alan Hammond

Duration: 4 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010