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Santa Fe Institute selects evolutionary theorist as new president

SANTA FE, N.M. — David Krakauer, an evolutionary theorist and director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been selected as the Santa Fe Institute’s next president.

Krakauer served as the WID’s first permanent director and has led WID since fall 2011. He plans to join the Santa Fe Institute, the world-renowned cross-disciplinary think tank, on Aug. 1, 2015.

“I feel both energized and privileged to be returning to SFI,” Krakauer said in a news release. “I am convinced that the social, technological, research, and educational landscapes of the 21st century need an institute like SFI. It is the one place I know where collective brain power is limited only by the questions that it dares to ask.”

In 2012, Wired magazine named Krakauer among 50 people who will change the world.

Here is the remainder of the SFI news release on Krakauer’s selection:

Krakauer spent nine years at SFI as a faculty member and chair of faculty prior to leading WID, a major transdisciplinary research center at UW-Madison. He will take the reins from retiring SFI President Jerry Sabloff, who has led SFI since 2009. Krakauer will become SFI’s seventh president; the first was George Cowan in 1984.

“David was selected following a rigorous 18-month presidential search that included some of the top scientists and science administrators in the country,” says Michael Mauboussin, Chairman of SFI’s Board of Trustees. “He distinguished himself as having the right leadership experience, the needed breadth and rigor, and an abundance of energy that will help keep the Santa Fe Institute on the forefront of exciting, risky, and transdisciplinary scientific research.”

“Given David’s deep understanding of SFI, his broad scientific knowledge, his innovative vision for scientific growth, his ability to make complex topics comprehensible to general audiences, and his charismatic personality, he is a superb choice for the leadership of the Institute,” says Sabloff.

“I’ve always felt that SFI has a very special quality,” says Krakauer. “When people walk in, the feeling is often expressed as, ‘Wow, what is this place?’ It is clearly something very different. The question to me is, what is the secret sauce that makes SFI so successful? The people? The culture? The conversation? The place? The history? And how can we get more of it…how can we get a ridiculous quantity of it?”

The most challenging problems of the modern world are “complex,” he notes, in part because they involve interconnected social, biological, physical, and technological systems that adapt to changes in each other.

“There is no ready-made model we can use to net these adaptive Leviathans – we need new theories and new techniques – and we need to experiment with very wide-ranging ideas and very creative, open-minded people.”

“How can we understand society without knowing how our economies are driving innovation that generate technologies that spur energy decisions?” he asks. “These decisions make demands on information infrastructure and the environment, in turn influencing how we interact with the natural, agricultural, and cultural world.”

“For too long we’ve been looking at each of these problems in isolation, or at most, trying to understand how two systems interact with one another. The historical structure of research reflects a belief in restricted, ‘disciplinary solutions.’ But times, they are a-changing. What we need to investigate now is how multiple systems evolve and adapt in response to one another, and explore the common properties of these systems.”

“It all sounds highly improbable until you realize that it is not that large problems are intractable, but that they require audacious imagination, a willingness to take risks, convening the right groups of collaborators, and asking very challenging and seemingly far-out questions. After all, who would have suspected that there could be such things as space-time, quantum entanglement, Turing machines, and natural selection? These are wonders of the imagination that also facilitate interactions with our environments.”

Perhaps most important for SFI, he adds, “there is often an underlying formal structure shared by many of these systems. We’re interested in their energetic and informational properties, and what we can say about them mathematically and computationally. We search for theory because it is the role of theory to simplify problems.”

“When we speak of emergence in these systems, we are not trying to make things sound mysterious. It is the opposite. We are trying to discern the simplicity that generates the surprising complexity of our world. Only then will we become better at surviving and prospering upon it.”

Because SFI’s purpose is to draw top minds from around the world and from nearly every corner of science and academia and put them together, he notes, it is a place for intellectual freedom and creativity where scholars can explore the deep interrelationships between and among complex systems. Freeform discussions in scientific meetings or at lunch or tea turn into ideas for new research expeditions, which – after careful study – sometimes turn into insights about new problems, or problems people have been failing to understand in traditional ways, he says.

“SFI is not about looking straight at an old problem or seeking an immediate answer to an existing question,” he says. “SFI is about circling a phenomenon, considering all the angles and unique perspectives to see a thing in a completely new light. That’s what people admire, what I admire, about SFI. That’s the spirit in which SFI does its best, most compelling, most important work. And then, of course, we use data, math, and computation to make sure we’re on the right trajectory and orbiting the right intellectual star.”

Krakauer received degrees in biology and computer science at the University of London and earned his D.Phil. in evolutionary theory from Oxford University, where he remained as a postdoctoral fellow and later as a Wellcome Research Fellow. He also spent three years at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University before joining SFI in 2002. At WID, he sought to re-imagine the standard, siloed university research model in favor of a more freeform collaborative mash-up of disciplines.

His research focuses on the evolutionary history of information processing mechanisms. The research spans multiple levels of organization, seeking analogous patterns and principles in genetics, cell biology, microbiology, and in organism behavior and society.

The big question motivating his own research, he says, is “to understand the origin of intelligence in the universe – where does adaptive matter come from and how does it evolve to game the world around it?”

Krakauer’s frequent scientific collaborator and partner, Jessica Flack, will also join SFI as a professor. More here.

Krakauer’s and Flack’s transition to Santa Fe prompts moving WID’s Center for Complexity and Collective Computation (C4), which they co-directed, to New Mexico, where it will become the Collective Computation Group.

Sabloff plans to retire from SFI on August 1 and return to his research and writing. He also plans to continue serving on numerous academic advisory boards. He will remain affiliated with SFI as an external professor.