New Santa Fe Institute Director David Krakauer Has No Plans To Keep A Low Profile

New SFI President David Krakauer wants to move the organization beyond first gear. Photo by Roger Snodgrass/


Los Alamos Daily Post

David Krakauer’s tenure as president of the Santa Fe Institute is barely three weeks old, but he is already maneuvering to shake things up.

On Wednesday, Krakauer invited a score or so of media types for an open-ended discussion at the Cowan Campus in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains overlooking Santa Fe. The purpose, he said, was to get a sense of the community, but he also asked what they might like to see from SFI.

What he wants to do is “move beyond first gear,” he said, based on a conviction that the 30-year-old Santa Fe Institute, having now advanced well beyond its origins as an Apollonian offshoot of Los Alamos National Laboratory, does not get enough credit for its pervasive influence in the world. The budget may only be the size of a major department, Krakauer pointed out, but its impact from a global network of scholars and their production of valuable new insights and analytics extends well beyond scope of all but a few universities.

This brings up a question SFI acolytes have discussed for years, about whether the institute should become a degree-granting institution, and if so what kind. Krakauer’s idea is that in keeping with the diversity of its interests, it could become a multiversity, in partnership with several major universities. He envisions PhDs in every kind of discipline might come to the Northern New Mexico campus for a finishing period in which they would be extra certified in the complexity of their disciplines.

One long overdue project, he said, is to establish a prize in complexity, perhaps two. One would be awarded on the basis of fundamental research. Another would be awarded on the basis of impact, for introducing the best applied idea that makes a difference.

“We’ll start that next year,” he said.” How much the prize would be worth is yet to be determined, depending on the underwriter.

“The most out-there thing,” he said, “is a festival.” Inspired by the highly publicized success of festivals like South by Southwest (SXSW), Burning Man, and Comic-Con, Krakauer had an idea for starting a festival at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, called Iconoclast, in his previous post as director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. Now in New Mexico, he has been inspired by a kind of nexus of themes that he labels “Interplanetary.” The concept links Roswell’s aliens with Truth or Consequences’ Spaceport America, Magdalena’s Very Large Array and the Star Axis that is somewhere out there between Las Vegas and Santa Rosa.

Other related cultural nodes might also include Tony Price’s atomic sculptures, Puebloan archeo-astronomy and Catron County’s Lightning Field. A festival that encompassed the “interplanetary” shrines in the state would be geographically challenged, but could also be a forum for fresh thinking on ecology, social dynamics and engineering, Krakauer said, and altogether partake of the Whole Earth idea that adapting to life in universe is an ideal preparation for learning to live sustainably on our own precious planetary spaceship.

Krakauer is a charming academic with a playful otter-like intellect and restless energy. An avid reader and futurist, he alluded to several science fiction authors and novels, including Kim Stanley Robinson (of the Mars trilogy and most recently Aurora) and Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon and most recently Seveneves), who will be visiting the institute soon. With an Oxford PhD and a stint at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study, Krakauer became a professor at SFI in 2002 and a faculty chair in 2009.

Needless to say, his research exudes complexity, having “focused on the evolutionary history of information processing mechanisms in biology and culture,” and spanning “multiple levels of organization, seeking analogous patterns and principles in genetics, cell biology, microbiology and in organismal behavior and society.”

But the “larger issue” – and Krakauer, as one of the leading deans of complexity science in the world has an abundance of both larger and smaller issues – has to do with the “parlous state” of division and self-destruction the world seems to be caught up in. And not to do something about that would mean we are being irresponsible, he said.

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