The Institute Para Limes

I spent part of last week at the "opening congress" of the Institute Para Limes (IPL) in The Netherlands.  The IPL is meant to be a European version of the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) for the new century, though because of it's cultural mileau it is also meant to be something different.  The meeting last week was supposed to help sort out the focus and style of the place. 

Wikipedia notes that;

SFI's original mission was to disseminate the notion of a separate interdisciplinary research area, complexity theory referred to at SFI as "complexity science". Recently it has announced that its original mission to develop and disseminate a general theory of complexity has been realized. It noted that numerous complexity institutes and departments have sprung up around the world.

SFI was founded by a bunch of famous people, a Nobel Laureate included, and has been much lauded in the press, though its reputation is not universally sterling in academic circles.  This is primarily because, I suspect, many people are still trying to figure out exactly what "Complexity Science" really is all about.  It's a fair question.  But there has been a great deal of good work done at the SFI.

The director of SFI, Geoff West, was the first speaker at the Institute Para Limes meeting, and his talk focussed both on how SFI has succeeded and also his own contributions in the areas of allometric scaling.  He also spoke about this really cool paper in PNAS that I printed out last spring, but have somehow managed to not yet read, "Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities". 

The IPL will eventually be sited in a renovated monastery in Duisberg, which is intellectually, by design, approximately in the middle of nowhere.  This part of the plan for IPL confuses me a bit.  It will take at least 90 minutes to get to IPL from Amsterdam, probably more if you have to change trains multiple times, like I did, and then find a taxi for the final leg.  There is something to be said for making sure you have some intellectual distance from staid Universities, but in my experience it a block or two is usually enough to serve as infinitely high barriers between academic departments.  At Princeton, for many years, it was an exceptionally rare sight for anyone to even cross the street between Jadwin (Physics) and Lewis Thomas (Molecular Biology) for the purposes of a scientific discussion.

The meeting was a chance for me to catch up with Sydney Brenner a bit, to stand by has he and Gerard t'Hooft got into an animated, um, communication, about the purpose of DNA, and to hear Sydney drop a few bon mots:

On "factory science" in biology: "Low input, high throughput, no output."

On evolution: "Mathematics is the art of the perfect.  Physics is the art of the optimal.  Biology is the art of the satisfactory.  Patch it up with sticky tape, tie it up with twine, and go on.  If it doesn't work, end of story, next genome."

Gerard t'Hooft had this nice bit about the process of science: "Science is about the truth.  Science zooms in on the truth.  The truth changes, in part due to changes in science, but the assumptions and conjectures are always periodically tested."

And Science Always Wins.