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Podcast Profile: COMPLEXITY

podcast imageTwitter: @sfiscience@michaelgarfield (@sfiscience followed by 38 science writers)
Site: www.santafe.edu/culture/podcasts
96 episodes
2019 to present
Average episode: 58 minutes
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Categories: Interview-Style • Math • Multidisciplinary

Podcaster's summary: Far-reaching conversations with a worldwide network of scientists and mathematicians, philosophers and artists developing new frameworks to explain our universe's deepest mysteries. Join host Michael Garfield at the Santa Fe Institute each week to learn about your world and the people who have dedicated their lives to exploring its emergent order: their stories, research, and insights…

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List Updated: 2022-Dec-07 13:12 UTC. Episodes: 96. Feedback: @TrueSciPhi.

Episodes
2022-Nov-23 • 49 minutes
John Krakauer Part 2: Learning, Curiosity, and Consciousness
What makes us human? Over the last several decades, the once-vast island of human exceptionalism has lost significant ground to wave upon wave of research revealing cognition, emotion, problem-solving, and tool-use in other organisms. But there remains a clear sense that humans stand apart — evidenced by our unique capacity to overrun the planet and remake it in our image. What is unique about the human mind, and how might we engage this question rigorously through the lens of neuroscience? How are our gif...
2022-Nov-11 • 51 minutes
John Krakauer Part 1: Taking Multiple Perspectives on The Brain
The brain is arguably one of the most complex objects known to science. How best to understand it? That is a trick question: brains are organized at many levels and attempts to grasp them all through one approach — be it micro, macro, anatomical, behavioral — are destined to leave out crucial insights. What more, thinking “vertically” across scales, one might miss important angles from another discipline along the “horizontal” axis. For inquiries too big to sit within one field of knowledge, maybe it is tim...
2022-Oct-21 • 66 minutes
David Wolpert & Farita Tasnim on The Thermodynamics of Communication
Communication is a physical process. It’s common sense that sending and receiving intelligible messages takes work…but how much work? The question of the relationship between energy, information, and matter is one of the deepest known to science. There appear to be limits to the rate at which communication between two systems can happen…but the search for a fundamental relationship between speed, error, and energy (among other things) promises insights far deeper than merely whether we can keep making faste...
2022-Oct-01 • 70 minutes
Kate Adamala on Synthetic Biology, Origins of Life, and Bioethics
What does it mean to be alive? Our origins are the horizon of our understanding, and as with the physical horizon, our approach brings us no closer. The more we learn, the more mysterious it all becomes. What if we’re asking the wrong questions? Maybe life did not begin at all, but rather coalesced piecemeal, a set of properties contingent and convergent, plural, more than once? Maybe the origin of life is happening right now, just over the horizon, forming something new anew. Let’s get into the weeds and s...
2022-Sep-21 • 57 minutes
Miguel Fuentes & Marco Buongiorno Nardelli on Music, Emergence, and Society
One way to frame the science of complexity is as a revelation of the hidden order under seemingly separate phenomena — a teasing-out of music from the noise of history and nature. This effort follows centuries of work to find the rules that structure language, music, and society. How strictly analogous are the patterns governing a symphony and those that describe a social transformation? Math and music are old friends, but new statistical and computational techniques afford the possibility of going even dee...
2022-Sep-02 • 71 minutes
Steven Teles & Rajiv Sethi on Jailbreaking The Captured Economy (EPE 04)
As the old nut goes, “To the victor goes the spoils.” But if each round of play consolidates the spoils into fewer hands, eventually it comes to pass that wealthy special interests twist the rules so much it undermines the game itself. When economic power overtakes the processes of democratic governance, growth stagnates, and the rift between the rich and poor becomes abyssal. Desperate times and desperate measures jeopardize the fabric of society. How might nonpartisan approaches to this wicked problem hel...
2022-Aug-19 • 83 minutes
Caleb Scharf on The Ascent of Information: Life in The Human Dataome
Chances are you’re listening to this on an advanced computer that fits in your pocket, but is really just one tentacle tip of a giant, planet-spanning architecture for the gathering and processing of data. A common sentiment among the smartphone-enabled human population is that we not only don’t own our data, but our data owns us — or, at least, the pressure of responsibility to keep providing data to the Internet and its devices (and the wider project of human knowledge construction) implicates us in the e...
2022-Aug-03 • 53 minutes
Daniel Lieberman on Evolution and Exercise: The Science of Human Endurace
Human beings are distinctly weird. We live for a very long time after we stop reproducing, move completely differently than all of our closest relatives, lack the power of chimpanzees and other primates but completely outdo most other terrestrial mammals in a contest of endurance. If we think about bodies as hypotheses about the stable features of their ancestral environments, what do the features of our unusual physiology say about what humans ARE, where we come from, the details of our origin story as a p...
2022-Jul-18 • 75 minutes
Aviv Bergman on The Evolution of Robustness and Integrating The Disciplines
Ask any martial artist: It’s not just where a person strikes you but your stance that matters. The amplitude and angle of a blow is one thing but how you can absorb and/or deflect it makes the difference. The same is true in any evolutionary system. Most people seem to know “the butterfly effect” where tiny changes lead to large results, but the inverse also works: complex organisms buffer their development against adverse mutations so that tiny changes cannot redirect the growth of limbs and other organs. ...
2022-Jul-02 • 82 minutes
Sara Walker on The Physics of Life and Planet-Scale Intelligence
What is life, and where does it come from? These are two of the deepest, most vexing, and persistent questions in science, and their enduring mystery and allure is complicated by the fact that scientists approach them from a myriad of different angles, hard to reconcile. Whatever else one might identify as universal features of all living systems, most scholars would agree life is a physical phenomenon unfolding in time. And yet current physics is notorious for its inadequacy with respect to time. Life appe...
2022-Jun-18 • 85 minutes
Dmitri Tymoczko on The Shape of Music: Mathematical Order in Western Tonality
Math and music share their mystery and magic. Three notes, played together, make a chord whose properties could not be predicted from those of the separate notes. In the West, music theory and mathematics have common origins and a rich history of shaping and informing one another’s field of inquiry. And, curiously, Western composition has evolved over several hundred years in much the same way economies and agents in long-running simulations have: becoming measurably more complex; encoding more and more env...
2022-Jun-04 • 68 minutes
Seth Blumsack on Power Grids: Network Topology & Governance
We lead our lives largely unaware of the immense effort required to support them. All of us grew up inside the so-called “Grid” — actually one of many interconnected regional power grids that electrify our modern world. The physical infrastructure and the regulatory intricacies required to keep the lights on: both have grown organically, piecemeal, in complex networks that nobody seems to fully understand. And yet, we must. Compared to life 150 years ago, we are all utterly dependent on the power grid, and ...
2022-May-21 • 81 minutes
Ricardo Hausmann & J. Doyne Farmer on Evolving Technologies & Market Ecologies (EPE 03)
As our world knits together, economic interdependencies change in both shape and nature. Supply chains, finance, labor, technological innovation, and geography interact in puzzling nonlinear ways. Can we step back far enough and see clearly enough to make sense of these interactions? Can we map the landscape of capability across scales? And what insights emerge by layering networks of people, firms, states, markets, regions? We’re all riding a bucking horse; what questions can we ask to make sure that we ca...
2022-May-06 • 51 minutes
Eric Beinhocker & Diane Coyle on Rethinking Economics for A Sustainable & Prosperous World (EPE 02)
In the digital era, data is practically the air we breathe. So why does everybody treat it like a product to be hoarded and sold at profit? How would our world change if Big Tech operated on assumptions and incentives more aligned with the needs of a healthy society? Are more data — or are bigger models — really better? As human beings scamper around like prehistoric mammals under the proverbial feet of the new enormous digital monopolies that have emerged due to the Web’s economies of scale, how might we t...
2022-Apr-21 • 53 minutes
David Krakauer on Emergent Political Economies and A Science of Possibility (EPE 01)
The world is unfair — but how much of that unfairness is inevitable, and how much is just contingency? After centuries of efforts to arrive at formal theories of history, society, and economics, most of us still believe and act on what amounts to myth. Our predecessors can’t be faulted for their lack of data, but in 2022 we have superior resources we’re only starting to appreciate and use. In honor of the Santa Fe Institute’s new role as the hub of an international research network exploring Emergent Politi...
2022-Apr-08 • 74 minutes
C. Brandon Ogbunu on Epistasis & The Primacy of Context in Complex Systems
Context is king: whether in language, ecology, culture, history, economics, or chemistry. One of the core teachings of complexity science is that nothing exists in isolation — especially when it comes to systems in which learning, memory, or emergent behaviors play a part. Even though this (paradoxically) limits the universality of scientific claims, it also lets us draw analogies between the context-dependency of one phenomenon and others: how protein folding shapes HIV evolution is meaningfully like the w...
2022-Mar-26 • 54 minutes
Mingzhen Lu on The Evolution of Root Systems & Biogeochemical Cycling
As fictional Santa Fe Institute chaos mathematician Ian Malcolm famously put it, “Life finds a way” — and this is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than by roots: seeking out every opportunity, improving in their ability to access and harness nutrients as they’ve evolved over the last 400 million years. Roots also exemplify another maxim for living systems: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” As the Earth’s climate has transformed, the plants and fungi have transformed along with it, reaching into...
2022-Mar-11 • 57 minutes
The Ethics of Autonomous Vehicles with Bryant Walker Smith
Autonomous vehicles hardly live up to their name. The goal of true “driverlessness” was originally hyped in the 1930s but keeps getting kicked further and further into the future as the true complexity of driving comes into ever-sharper and more daunting focus. In 2022, even the most capable robotic cars aren’t self-determining agents but linked into swarms and acting as the tips of a vast and hidden web of design, programming, legislation, and commercial interest. Infrastructure is more than the streets an...
2022-Feb-25 • 74 minutes
Elizabeth Hobson on Animal Dominance Hierarchies
Irrespective of your values, if you’re listening to this, you live in a pecking order. Dominance hierarchies, as they’re called by animal behaviorists, define the lives of social creatures. The society itself is a kind of individual that gathers information and adapts to its surroundings by encoding stable environmental features in the power relationships between its members. But what works for the society at large often results in violence and inequity for its members; as the founder of this field of resea...
2022-Feb-11 • 54 minutes
Hard Sci-Fi Worldbuilding, Robotics, Society, & Purpose with Gary Bengier
As a careful study of the world, science is reflective and reactive — it constrains our flights of fancy, anchors us in hard-won fact. By contrast, science fiction is a speculative world-building exercise that guides imagination and foresight by marrying the known with the unknown. The field is vast; some sci-fi writers pay less tribute to the line between the possible and the impossible. Others, though, adopt a far more sober tactic and write “hard” sci fi that does its best to stay within the limits of ou...
2022-Jan-27 • 46 minutes
Multiscale Crisis Response: Melanie Moses & Kathy Powers, Part 2
COVID has exposed and possibly amplified the polarization of society. What can we learn from taking a multiscale approach to crisis response? There are latencies in economies of scale, inequality of access and supply chain problems. The virus evolves faster than peer review. Science is politicized. But thinking across scales offers answers, insights, better questions…Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you w...
2022-Jan-13 • 46 minutes
Fractal Inequality & The Complexity of Repair: Kathy Powers & Melanie Moses, Part 1
Some people say we’re all in the same boat; others say no, but we’re all in the same storm. Wherever you choose to focus the granularity of your inquiry, one thing is certain: we are all embedded in, acting on, and being acted upon by the same nested networks. Our fates are intertwined, but our destinies diverge like weather forecasts, hingeing on small variations in contingency: the circumstances of our birth, the changing contexts of our lives. Seen through a complex systems science lens, the problem of u...
2021-Dec-22 • 71 minutes
Reflections on COVID-19 with David Krakauer & Geoffrey West
If you’re honest with yourself, you’re likely asking of the last two years: What happened? The COVID-19 pandemic is a prism through which our stories and predictions have refracted…or perhaps it’s a kaleidoscope, through which we can infer relationships and causes, but the pieces all keep shifting. One way to think about humankind’s response to COVID is as a collision between predictive power and understanding, highlighting how far the evolution of our comprehension has trailed behind the evolution of our t...
2021-Dec-13 • 58 minutes
Tina Eliassi-Rad on Democracies as Complex Systems
Democracy is a quintessential complex system: citizens’ decisions shape each other’s in nonlinear and often unpredictable ways; the emergent institutions exert top-down regulation on the individuals and orgs that live together in a polity; feedback loops and tipping points abound. And so perhaps it comes as no surprise in our times of turbulence and risk that democratic processes are under extraordinary pressure from the unanticipated influences of digital communications media, rapidly evolving economic for...
2021-Nov-24 • 81 minutes
Simon DeDeo on Good Explanations & Diseases of Epistemology
What makes a satisfying explanation? Understanding and prediction are two different goals at odds with one another — think fundamental physics versus artificial neural networks — and even what defines a “simple” explanation varies from one person to another. Held in a kind of ecosystemic balance, these diverse approaches to seeking knowledge keep each other honest…but the use of one kind of knowledge to the exclusion of all others leads to disastrous results. And in the 21st Century, the difference between ...
2021-Nov-05 • 33 minutes
Lauren Klein on Data Feminism (Part 2): Tracing Linguistic Innovation
Where does cultural innovation come from? Histories often simplify the complex, shared work of creation into tales of Great Men and their visionary genius — but ideas have precedents, and moments, and it takes two different kinds of person to have and to hype them. The popularity of “influencers” past and present obscures the collaborative social processes by which ideas are born and spread. What can new tools for the study of historical literature tell us about how languages evolve…and what might a formal ...
2021-Oct-23 • 46 minutes
Lauren Klein on Data Feminism (Part 1): Surfacing Invisible Labor
When British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow described the sciences and humanities as “two cultures” in 1959, it wasn’t a statement of what could or should be, but a lament over the sorry state of western society’s fractured intellectual life. Over sixty years later the costs of this fragmentation are even more pronounced and dangerous. But advances in computing now make it possible for historians and engineers to speak in one another’s languages, catalyzing novel insights in each other’s home domains. And...
2021-Oct-07 • 63 minutes
W. Brian Arthur (Part 2) on "Prim Dreams of Order vs. Messy Vitality" in Economics, Math, and Physics
Can you write a novel using only nouns? Well, maybe…but it won’t be very good, nor easy, nor will it tell a story. Verbs link events, allow for narrative, communicate becoming. So why, in telling stories of our economic lives, have people settled into using algebraic theory ill-suited to the task of capturing the fundamentally uncertain, open and evolving processes of innovation and exchange?Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every oth...
2021-Sep-24 • 52 minutes
W. Brian Arthur on Economics in Nouns and Verbs (Part 1)
What is the economy? People used to tell stories about the exchange of goods and services in terms of flows and processes — but over the last few hundred years, economic theory veered toward measuring discrete amounts of objects. Why? The change has less to do with the objective nature of economies and more to do with what tools theorists had available. And scientific instruments — be they material technologies or concepts — don’t just make new things visible, but also hide things in new blind spots. F...
2021-Sep-08 • 64 minutes
Tyler Marghetis on Breakdowns & Breakthroughs: Critical Transitions in Jazz & Mathematics
Whether in an ecosystem, an economy, a jazz ensemble, or a lone scholar thinking through a problem, critical transitions — breakdowns and breakthroughs — appear to follow universal patterns. Creative leaps that take place in how mathematicians “think out loud” with body, chalk, and board look much like changes in the movement through “music-space” traced by groups of improvisers. Society itself appears to have an “aha moment” when a meme goes viral or a new word emerges in the popular vocabulary. How do col...
2021-Aug-14 • 66 minutes
Katherine Collins on Better Investing Through Biomimicry
We are all investors: we all make choices, all the time, about our allocation of time, calories, attention… Even our bodies, our behavior and anatomy, represent investment in specific strategies for navigating an evolving world. And yet most people treat the world of finance as if it is somehow separate from the rest of life — including people who design the tools of finance, or who come up with economic theories. Many of the human world’s problems can be traced back to this fundamental error, and, by exten...
2021-Jul-30 • 54 minutes
Deborah Gordon on Ant Colonies as Distributed Computers
The popular conception of ants is that “anatomy is destiny”: an ant’s body type determines its role in the colony, for once and ever. But this is not the case; rather than forming rigid castes, ants act like a distributed computer in which tasks are re-allocated as the situation changes. “Division of labor” implies a constant “assembly line” environment, not fluid adaptation to evolving conditions. But ants do not just “graduate” from one task to another as they age; they pivot to accept the work required b...
2021-Jul-16 • 66 minutes
Reconstructing Ancient Superhighways with Stefani Crabtree and Devin White
Seventy thousand years ago, humans migrated on foot across the ancient continent of Sahul — the landmass that has since split up into Australia and New Guinea. Mapping the journeys of these ancient voyagers is no small task: previous efforts to understand prehistoric migrations relied on coarse estimates based on genomic studies or on spotty records of recovered artifacts.Now, progress in the fields of geographic information system mapping and agent-based modeling can help archaeologists run massive simula...
2021-Jul-01 • 46 minutes
Mark Ritchie on A New Thermodynamics of Biochemistry, Part 2
This week we conclude our two-part discussion with ecologist Mark Ritchie of Syracuse University on how he and his SFI collaborators are starting to rethink the intersections of thermodynamics and biology to better fit our scientific models to the patterns we observe in nature. Most of what we know about the enzymatic processes of plant and animal metabolisms comes from test tube experiments, not studies in the context of a living organism. What changes when we zoom out and think about life’s manufacturing ...
2021-Jun-17 • 41 minutes
Mark Ritchie on A New Thermodynamics of Biochemistry, Part 1
Deep inside your cells, the chemistry of life is hard at work to make the raw materials and channel the energy required for growth, maintenance, and reproduction. Few systems are as intricate or as mysterious. For this reason, how a cell does what it does remains a frontier for research — and, consequently, theory often grows unchecked by solid data. Most of what we know about the enzymatic processes of plant and animal metabolisms comes from test tube experiments, not studies in the context of a living org...
2021-Jun-04 • 49 minutes
Andrea Wulf on The Invention of Nature, Part 2: Humboldt's Dangerous Idea
The 19th Century saw many transformations: the origins of ecology and modern climatology, new unifying theories of the living world, the first Big Science projects, revolutions in the Spanish colonies, new information systems for the storage and representation of data… Many of these can be traced back to the influence of one singular explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt was one of the last true polymathic individuals in whom the sum of human knowledge could be seated. As the known world grew, he leane...
2021-May-21 • 51 minutes
Andrea Wulf on The Invention of Nature, Part 1: Humboldt's Naturegemälde
When you hear the word “nature,” what comes to mind? Chances are, if you are listening to this in the 21st Century, the image is one of a vast, interconnected, living network — one in which you and your fellow human beings play a complicated part. And yet, this is a relatively recent way of thinking for the modern West. It takes a special kind of thinker — and a special kind of life — to find and recognize the patterns that connect different environments around the planet. Until the pioneering research of 1...
2021-May-07 • 58 minutes
Sidney Redner on Statistics and Everyday Life
Complexity is all around us: in the paths we walk through pathless woods, the strategies we use to park our cars, the dynamics of an elevator as it cycles up and down a building. Zoom out far enough and the phenomena of everyday existence start revealing hidden links, suggesting underlying universal patterns. At great theoretic heights, it all yields to statistical analysis: winning streaks and traffic jams, card games and elevators. Boiling down complicated real-world situations into elegant toy models, ph...
2021-Apr-23 • 61 minutes
Orit Peleg on the Collective Behavior of Honeybees & Fireflies
“More than the sum of its parts” is practically the slogan of systems thinking. One canonical example is a beehive: individually, a honeybee is not that clever, but together they can function like shapeshifting metamaterials or mesh networks — some of humankind’s most sophisticated innovations. Emergent collective behavior is common in the insect world — and not just among superstar collaborators like bees, ants, and termites. One firefly, alone, blinks randomly; together, fireflies effect an awe-inspiring ...
2021-Apr-08 • 48 minutes
Jonas Dalege on The Physics of Attitudes & Beliefs
Human relationships are often described in the language of “chemistry” — does that make the beliefs and attitudes of individuals a kind of “physics”? It is, at least, a fascinating avenue of inquiry. In particular, the field of statistical mechanics offers potent tools for understanding how exactly people form their views and change their minds. From this perspective, everyone is a dynamic network of opinions and values, in a tense and ever-changing balance both with others and ourselves. The “chemistry” of...
2021-Mar-26 • 64 minutes
J. Doyne Farmer on The Complexity Economics Revolution
Once upon a time at UC Santa Cruz, a group of renegade grad students started mixing physics with math and computers, determined to discover underlying patterns in the seeming-randomness of systems like the weather and roulette. Their research led to major insights in the emerging field of chaos theory, and eventually to the new discipline of complexity economics — which brings models from ecology and physics, cognitive science and biology together to improve our understanding of how value flows through netw...
2021-Mar-12 • 60 minutes
James Evans on Social Computing and Diversity by Design
In the 21st Century, science is a team sport played by humans and computers, both. Social science in particular is in the midst of a transition from the qualitative study of small groups of people to the quantitative and computer-aided study of enormous data sets created by the interactions of machines and people. In this new ecology, wanting AI to act human makes no sense, but growing “alien” intelligences offers useful difference — and human beings find ourselves empowered to identify new questions no one...
2021-Feb-26 • 60 minutes
David Stork on AI Art History
Art history is a lot like archaeology — we here in the present day get artifacts and records, but the gaps between them are enormous, and the questions that they beg loom large. Historians need to be able to investigate and interpret, to unpack the meanings and the methods of a given work of art — but even for the best, the act of reconstruction is a trying test. Can we program computers to decipher the backstory of a painting — analyzing light and shadow to guess at how a piece was made? And, even more amb...
2021-Feb-12 • 50 minutes
Alien Crash Site Invades Complexity: Tamara van der Does on Sci-Fi Science, with Guest Co-host Caitlin McShea
The consequence of living in a complex world: one tiny tweak can lead to massive transformation. Set the stage a slightly different way, and the entire play might unfold differently. This path-dependency shows up in both the science fiction premise and the hypothesis of scientific research: What can we learn about the hidden order of our cosmos by adjusting just a single variable?Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’l...
2021-Jan-29 • 72 minutes
Mark Moffett on Canopy Biology & The Human Swarm
Most maps of the world render landscapes in 2D — yet wherever we observe ecosystems, they stratify into a third dimension. The same geometries that describe the dizzying diversity of species in the canopies of forests also govern life in other living systems, from the oceans to the linings of our mouths. Behind the many forms, a hidden order shapes how organisms live in and on each other — and this emerging discipline of “canopy biology” may yield important insights into modern urban life. Human societies...
2021-Jan-15 • 72 minutes
Cris Moore on Algorithmic Justice & The Physics of Inference
It’s tempting to believe that people can outsource decisions to machines — that algorithms are objective, and it’s easier and fairer to dump the burden on them. But convenience conceals the complicated truth: when lives are made or broken by AI, we need transparency about the way we ask computers questions, and we need to understand what kinds of problems they’re not suited for. Sometimes we may be using the wrong models, and sometimes even great models fail when fed sparse or noisy data. Applying physics i...
2020-Dec-23 • 59 minutes
Science in The Time of COVID: Michael Lachmann & Sam Scarpino on Lessons from The Pandemic
COVID-19 hasn’t just disrupted the “normal” of everyone’s social practices in what we take for granted as “daily life.” The pandemic has also, more granularly, changed the way scientists research and publish; it has changed the way science interfaces with institutions as varied as local governments and cell phone companies; it has changed the way we host and produce this podcast. This episode, for instance, with SFI External Professor Sam Scarpino and Resident Professor Michael Lachmann was recorded live ov...
2020-Dec-11 • 62 minutes
Artemy Kolchinsky on "Semantic Information" & The Physics of Meaning
Matter, energy, and information: the holy trinity of physics. Understanding the relations between these measures of our world are one of the big questions of complex systems science.The laws of thermodynamics tell us that entropy (loosely but somewhat inaccurately speaking, “disorder”) increases in any closed material system. But at the same time living systems constantly pump out entropy, thereby keeping themselves alive by harnessing flows of energy and information. We know that physical systems gain or l...
2020-Nov-26 • 90 minutes
Peter Dodds on Text-Based Timeline Analysis & New Instruments for The Science of Stories
"There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”– Vladimir Ilyich LeninWhen human beings saw the first pictures of the Earth from space, the impact was transformative. New instruments for taking in new vistas, for understanding our relationships and contexts at a different scale, have in some ways defined the history of not just science but the evolution of intelligence. And now, thanks to the surfeit of textual data offered up by social media, researchers can peer into t...
2020-Nov-11 • 55 minutes
Scott Ortman on Archaeological Synthesis and Settlement Scaling Theory
The modern world has a way of distancing itself from everything that came before it…and yet the evidence from archaeology supports a different story. While industrial societies tend to praise markets and advanced technologies as the main drivers of the last few centuries of change, a careful study of civilizations as distinct as Ancient Rome, Peru, and Central Mexico reveals an underlying uniformity. Consistent patterns have played out in human settlements across millennia and continents, regardless of the ...
2020-Oct-29 • 62 minutes
Helena Miton on Cultural Evolution in Music and Writing Systems
Organisms aren’t the only products of the evolutionary process. Cultural products such as writing, art, and music also undergo change over time, subject to both the constraints of the physical environment and the psychologies of those who make them. In recent years, the study of cultural evolution has exploded with new insights — revelations into the dynamics of how culture is transmitted, how it mutates under different pressures, and why some forms are remarkably resilient and stable across time and space....
2020-Oct-14 • 52 minutes
David Wolpert on The No Free Lunch Theorems and Why They Undermine The Scientific Method
On the one hand, we have math: a world of forms and patterns, a priori logic, timeless and consistent. On the other, we have physics: messy and embodied interactions, context-dependent and contingent on a changing world. And yet, many people get the two confused, including physicists and mathematicians. Where the two meet, and the nature of the boundary between them, is a matter of debate — one of the greatest puzzles known to science and philosophy — but some things can be said for sure about what can and ...
2020-Oct-09 • 21 minutes
Introducing Alien Crash Site, a new SFI Podcast with host Caitlin McShea
Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.This week we present something different: SFI’s InterPlanetary Project is excited to announce a new podcast, Alien Crash Site, in which we ask some of the most interesting people we know — scientists, artist...
2020-Sep-30 • 70 minutes
Vicky Yang & Henrik Olsson on Political Polling & Polarization: How We Make Decisions & Identities
Whether you live in the USA or have just been watching the circus from afar, chances are that you agree: “polarization” dominates descriptions of the social landscape. Judging from the news alone, one might think the States have never been so painfully divided…yet nuanced public polls, and new behavioral models, suggest another narrative: the United States is largely moderate, and people have much more in common with each other than they think. There’s no denying our predicament: cognitive biases lead us to...
2020-Sep-16 • 59 minutes
Carl Bergstrom & Jevin West on Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World
Now, maybe more than ever before, it is time to learn the art of skepticism. Amidst compounded complex crises, humankind must also navigate a swelling tidal wave of outright lies, clever misdirections, and well-meant but dangerous mistaken claims….in other words, bullshit. Why is the 21st Century such a hotbed of fake news? How can we structure our networks and their incentives to mitigate disinformation and encourage speaking truth to power? And whose responsibility is it to inform the public and other ex...
2020-Sep-02 • 57 minutes
Natalie Grefenstette on Agnostic Biosignature Detection
Is there life on Mars? Or Titan? What are we even looking for? Without a formal definition, inquiries into the stars just echo noise. But then, perhaps, the noise contains a signal… To find life elsewhere in the universe requires us to wager a defined biology, to come to terms with what it means to be alive. Looking out is looking in, to ask the hardest question ever: How do we find something we might not recognize as what we’re seeking?Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. ...
2020-Aug-12 • 67 minutes
The Information Theory of Biology & Origins of Life with Sara Imari Walker (Big Biology Podcast Crossover)
One of the defining characteristics of complex systems science is the shift in emphasis from objects to relationships and processes. How is information related to matter and energy, and how do the distinct formulations of different scientific lineages braid together in a unifying pattern? This search for a more fundamental understanding drives directly into some of the biggest questions science has to ask about the living world — namely, what is life, what is alive, and when did life begin? The Santa Fe Ins...
2020-Jul-23 • 63 minutes
Fractal Conflicts & Swing Voters with Eddie Lee
Since the 1940s, scientists have puzzled over a curious finding: armed conflict data reveals that human battles obey a power-law distribution, like avalanches and epidemics. Just like the fractal surfaces of mountains and cauliflowers, the shape of violence looks the same at any level of magnification. Beyond the particulars of why we fight, this pattern suggests a deep hidden order in the physical laws governing society. And, digging into new analyses of data from both armed conflicts and voting patterns...
2020-Jul-15 • 66 minutes
Fighting Hate Speech with AI & Social Science (with Joshua Garland, Mirta Galesic, and Keyan Ghazi-Zahedi)
The magnitude of interlocking “wicked problems” we humans face today is daunting…and made all the worse by the widening schisms in our public discourse, the growing prominence of hate speech and prejudicial violence. How can we collaborate at scale if it’s not even safe to act as citizens, to participate in a sufficiently diverse society, without becoming targets? The World Wide Web has made it easier than ever for hate groups to organize…but also grants new power to those willing to oppose the hateful. New...
2020-Jul-06 • 59 minutes
The Art & Science of Resilience in the Wake of Trauma with Laurence Gonzales
Each of us at some point in our lives will face traumatizing hardship — abuse or injury, lack or loss. And all of us must weather the planetwide effects of this pandemic, economic instability, systemic inequality, and social unrest…and find a way to live on with their consequences. Trauma isn’t evenly distributed. But it IS ubiquitous, and learning how to get on with our lives is one of our main tasks as human beings. From this hardship grows the best of us: our wisdom, compassion, creativity, and service. ...
2020-Jun-25 • 58 minutes
Geoffrey West on Scaling, Open-Ended Growth, and Accelerating Crisis/Innovation Cycles: Transcendence or Collapse? (Part 2)
Cities define the modern world. They characterize the human era and its impacts on our planet. By bringing us together, these "social reactors" amplify the best in us: our creativity, efficiency, wealth, and communal ethos. But they also amplify our worst: the incidence of social crimes, the span of inequality, our vulnerability to epidemics. And built into the physics of the city is an accelerating cycle of crisis and innovation that now drives our global economy and ecosystems closer to the edge of existe...
2020-Jun-17 • 50 minutes
Scaling Laws & Social Networks in The Time of COVID-19 with Geoffrey West (Part 1)
We’re living through a unique moment in history. The interlocking crises of a global pandemic, widespread unemployment, social unrest, and climate change, show us just how far human civilization has traveled along a path that leads to collapse. It is more crucial than ever to seek a deeper understanding of the systems that sustain us, and the thin layer of life on the surface of our planet. What are the underlying laws that govern how we live together and as individuals? How do our economies and cities grow...
2020-Jun-08 • 40 minutes
Better Scientific Modeling for Ecological & Social Justice with David Krakauer (Transmission Series Ep. 7)
Mathematical models of the world — be they in physics, economics, epidemiology — capture only details that researchers notice and deem salient. Rather than objective claims about reality, they encode (and thus enact) our blind spots. And the externalities created by those models — microscopic pathogens invisible to the naked eye, or differences in the social network structures of two neighborhoods, or food webs disrupted by urban development — have a way of biting back when we ignore them. Structural inequa...
2020-Jun-02 • 57 minutes
The Future of the Human Climate Niche with Tim Kohler & Marten Scheffer
Humans, like any other organism, occupy a niche — a “Goldilocks Zone” for which our biology is suited, relatively to the extreme diversity of habitats on Earth. But to understand the natural habitat of human beings we would first have to perform a comprehensive survey of human settlements throughout history and prehistory, looking for patterns in the climate data. No one did this research until very recently, and what they found surprised them. Human life, especially the outdoor work like farming on which o...
2020-May-11 • 47 minutes
Exponentials, Economics, and Ecology with David Krakauer (Transmission Series Ep. 6)
If COVID-19 has made anything obvious to everyone, it might be how the very small can force the transformation of the very large. Disrupt the right place in a network and exponential changes ripple outward: a virus causes a disease that leads to economic shocks and other social impacts that, in turn, re-open urban spaces to nonhuman animals and change the course of evolution.Adapting to these changes will require a different kind of understanding: one of nonlinear dynamics, feedback loops, extended selves, ...
2020-May-04 • 45 minutes
Embracing Complexity for Systemic Interventions with David Krakauer (Transmission Series Ep. 5)
It takes effort to embrace complexity. Simple models, simple narratives seem easier up front, their consequences only obvious in retrospect. When we talk about COVID-19 transmission rates, we’re using averages that do not offer crucial insights into how those rates may vary. When we target complex ailments with silver-bullet pharmaceuticals, we don’t address the underlying systems-level problems. Radical uncertainty resists attempts at easy answers, forcing changes in the pace at which we take shots in the ...
2020-Apr-27 • 51 minutes
Rethinking Our Assumptions During the COVID-19 Crisis with David Krakauer (Transmission Series Ep. 4)
COVID-19 has delivered an extraordinary shock to our assumptions, be they in how we practice education, business, research, or governance. When we base forecasts on bad data, even solid logic gives us unreliable results. Centralized authority is good for organized coherent action but isn’t agile or fine-grained enough to deal with local variance and rapidly evolving novel challenges. Surveillance can save lives but also threatens privacy upon which a diverse society depends. A longer memory might cost more ...
2020-Apr-20 • 44 minutes
On Coronavirus, Crisis, and Creative Opportunity with David Krakauer (Transmission Series Ep. 3)
Our histories constrain what opportunities we notice and can take in life. The genes you have define the shape your body can grow into, in concert with environmental influences. But the cards you’re dealt don’t tell you how to play your hand; for that, you have to know which game you’re playing. Natural selection acts through the relationships between an organism and ecology, a business and economy. What works in one environment may fail in others. The rub is that the rules are set by the collective actio...
2020-Apr-17 • 45 minutes
Caroline Buckee on Improving COVID-19 Surveillance & Response
For this special mini-series covering the COVID19 pandemic, we will bring you into conversation with the scientists studying the bigger picture of this crisis, so you can learn their cutting-edge approaches and what sense they make of our evolving global situation.This week’s guest is Caroline Buckee, formerly an SFI Omidyar Fellow, one of MIT Tech Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35, and a CNN Top 10: Thinker — now Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Publ...
2020-Apr-13 • 42 minutes
COVID-19 & Complex Time in Biology & Economics with David Krakauer (Transmission Series Ep. 2)
In several key respects, COVID-19 reveals how crucial timing is for human life. The lens of complex systems science helps us understand the central role of time in coordinating across scales, and how synchrony or misalignment leads to major consequences—whether it’s in how the metabolic differences between bats and humans can create an opportunity for interspecies epidemics, or in how the timing of society’s return to work could either help reboot or help destroy the world economy. Network research shows us...
2020-Apr-06 • 47 minutes
Rigorous Uncertainty: Science During COVID-19 with David Krakauer (Transmission Series Ep. 1)
The coronavirus pandemic is in one sense a kind of prism: it reveals the many interlocking systems that, until disrupted, formed the mostly invisible backdrop of modern life, challenging the economy and our models of the world at the same time that it threatens individual and social health. The virus acts on, and invites new understanding through, the complexity we only take for granted at our peril. In SFI’s new essay series on the crisis, Transmission, our international community of scientists explores a ...
2020-Apr-01 • 29 minutes
Sam Scarpino on Modeling Disease Transmission & Interventions
“We should not have a strategy that involves killing a sizable percentage of the population. But, even if you were going to get over that ethical hurdle, [herd immunity for Covid-19] still isn't going to work.”- Sam ScarpinoFor this special mini-series covering the Covid-19 pandemic, we will bring you into conversation with the scientists studying the bigger picture of this crisis, so you can learn their cutting-edge approaches and what sense they make of our evolving global situation.This week we speak wit...
2020-Mar-26 • 49 minutes
Laurent Hébert-Dufresne on Halting the Spread of COVID-19
Chances are, if you are listening to this around the time it was released, you’re listening alone. Right now the human species is conducting one of the most sweeping synchronized experiments of all time: physical isolation, restricted travel, shuttered businesses, our social lives moved online. Many people wonder whether all of this is truly necessary to halt the spread of COVID-19—or do not understand what differences there are between closed borders and closed schools and businesses, how epidemiologists d...
2020-Mar-19 • 36 minutes
Andy Dobson on Epidemic Modeling for COVID-19
Pandemics like the current novel coronavirus disease outbreak provide a powerful incentive to study the dynamics of complex adaptive systems. They also make it obvious, as new information streams in and our forecasts change in real-time, how hard emergent behaviors are to model and predict. For this special mini-series covering the COVID-19 crisis, we will bring you into conversation with scientists in the Santa Fe Institute’s global research network who study epidemics so you can learn their cutting-edge a...
2020-Mar-12 • 66 minutes
Nicole Creanza on Cultural Evolution in Humans & Songbirds
One feature common to nonlinear phenomena is how they challenge intuitions. Maybe nowhere is this more apparent than in studying the evolutionary process, and organisms in which not just genes but learned behaviors reproduce themselves provide a fountain of reliable surprises. Teasing out the intricate dynamics of gene-culture co-evolution is no easy feat. The dance of language, tools, and rituals together with anatomy reveals a deeper hidden order in how information spreads, and offers clues to why some st...
2020-Mar-05 • 77 minutes
Melanie Mitchell on Artificial Intelligence: What We Still Don't Know
Since the term was coined in 1956, artificial intelligence has been a kind of mirror that tells us more about our theories of intelligence, and our hopes and fears about technology, than about whether we can make computers think. AI requires us to formulate and specify: what do we mean by computation and cognition, intelligence and thought? It is a topic rife with hype and strong opinions, driven more by funding and commercial goals than almost any other field of science...with the curious effect of making ...
2020-Feb-27 • 53 minutes
Albert Kao on Animal Sociality & Collective Computation
Over one hundred years ago, Sir Francis Galton asked 787 villagers to guess an ox’s weight. None of them got it right, but averaging the answers led to a near-perfect estimate. This is a textbook case of the so-called “wisdom of crowds,” in which we’re smarter as collectives than we are as individuals. But the story of why evolution sometimes favors sociality is not so simple — everyone can call up cases in which larger groups make worse decisions. More nuanced scientific research is required for a deeper u...
2020-Feb-20 • 56 minutes
David B. Kinney on the Philosophy of Science
Science is often seen as a pure, objective discipline — as if it all rests neatly on cause and effect. As if the universe acknowledges a difference between ideal categories like “biology” and “physics.” But lately, the authority of science has had to reckon with critiques that it is practiced by flawed human actors inside social institutions. How much can its methods really disclose? Somewhere between the two extremes of scientism and the assertion that all knowledge is a social construct, real scientists c...
2020-Feb-13 • 66 minutes
Kirell Benzi on Data Art & The Future of Science Communication
Science has always been about improving human understanding of our universe…but scientists have not always prioritized accessibility of their hard-won results. The deeper research digs into specialized sub-fields and daunting data sets, the greater the divide a team must cross to help communicate their findings not just to the public, but to other scientists.It is cliché: “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” But it’s the truth: strong visual communication helps readers make the choice to dig into dense man...
2020-Feb-06 • 62 minutes
Chris Kempes on The Physical Constraints on Life & Evolution
Why is the internal structure of Bacteria so different from the architecture of a nucleated cell? Why do some kinds of organisms stay small, whereas others grow to enormous size? What evolutionary challenges drove life’s major transitions into more and more complex varieties…and what does studying these areas reveal about the changing landscape of our global economy?New research into the science of scale — how physics operates on systems of different sizes — reveals universal speed limits imposed on biology...
2020-Jan-30 • 59 minutes
Andy Dobson on Disease Ecology & Conservation Strategy
Physics usually gets the credit for grand unifying theories and the search for universal laws…but looking past the arbitrary boundaries between the sciences, it’s just as true that ecological research reveals deep patterns in the energy and information structures of our cosmos. There are profound analogies to draw from how evolving living systems organize themselves. And at the intersection of biology and physics, epidemiology and economics, new strategies for conservation and development emerge to guide us...
2020-Jan-23 • 50 minutes
R. Maria del-Rio Chanona on Modeling Labor Markets & Tech Unemployment
Since the first Industrial Revolution, most people have responded in one of two ways to the threat of technological unemployment: either a general blanket fear that the machines are coming for us all, or an equally uncritical dismissal of the issue. But history shows otherwise: the labor market changes over time in adaptation to the complex and nonlinear ways automation eats economies. Some jobs are easier to lose but teach skills that translate to other more secure jobs; other kinds of work elude mechaniza...
2020-Jan-15 • 61 minutes
W. Brian Arthur (Part 2) on The Future of The Economy
If the economy is better understood as an evolving system, an out-of-equilibrium ecology composed of agents that adapt to one another’s strategies, how does this change the way we think about our future? By drawing new analogies between technology and life, and studying how tools evolve by building on and recombining what has come before, what does this tell us about economics as a sub-process of our self-organizing biosphere? Over the last forty years, previously siloed scientific disciplines have come tog...
2020-Jan-08 • 57 minutes
W. Brian Arthur (Part 1) on The History of Complexity Economics
From its beginnings as a discipline nearly 150 years ago, economics rested on assumptions that don’t hold up when studied in the present day. The notion that our economic systems are in equilibrium, that they’re made of actors making simple rational and self-interested decisions with perfect knowledge of society— these ideas prove about as useful in the Information Age as Newton’s laws of motion are to quantum physicists. A novel paradigm for economics, borrowing insights from ecology and evolutionary biolo...
2019-Dec-18 • 66 minutes
Matthew Jackson on Social & Economic Networks
It may be a cliché, but it’s a timeless truth regardless: who you know matters. The connectedness of actors in a network tells us not just who wields the power in societies and markets, but also how new information spreads through a community and how resilient economic systems are to major shocks. One of the pillars of a complex systems understanding is the network science that reveals how structural differences lead to (or help counter) inequality and why a good idea alone can’t change the world. As human ...
2019-Dec-11 • 50 minutes
Ray Monk on The Lives of Extraordinary Individuals: Wittgenstein, Russell, Oppenheimer
In this show’s first episode, David Krakauer explained how art and science live along an axis of explanatory depth: science strives to find the simplest adequate abstractions to explain the world we observe, where art’s devotion is to the incompressible — the one-offs that resist abstraction and attempts to write a unifying framework. Between the random and the regular, amidst the ligaments that bind our scientific and artistic inquiries, we find a huge swath of the world that we struggle to articulate in f...
2019-Dec-04 • 66 minutes
Melanie Moses on Metabolic Scaling in Biology & Computation
What is the difference between 100 kilograms of human being and 100 kilograms of algae? One answer to this question is the veins and arteries that carry nutrients throughout the human body, allowing for the intricate coordination needed in a complex organism. Energy requirements determine how the evolutionary process settles on the body plans appropriate to an environment — one way to tell the story of life’s major innovations is in terms of how a living system solves the problems of increasing body size wi...
2019-Nov-27 • 79 minutes
Mirta Galesic on Social Learning & Decision-making
We live in a world so complicated and immense it challenges our comparably simple minds to even know which information we should use to make decisions. The human brain seems tuned to follow simple rules, and those rules change depending on the people we can turn to for support: when we decide to follow the majority or place our trust in experts, for example, depends on the networks in which we’re embedded. Consequently, much of learning and decision-making has as much or more to do with social implications ...
2019-Nov-20 • 64 minutes
Olivia Judson on Major Energy Transitions in Evolutionary History
It’s easy to take modern Earth for granted — our breathable atmosphere, the delicately balanced ecosystems we depend on — but this world is nothing like the planet on which life first found its foothold. In fact it may be more appropriate to think of life in terms of verbs than nouns, of processes instead of finished products. This is the evolutionary turn that science started taking in the 19th Century…but only in the last few decades has biology begun to see this planet’s soil, air, and oceans as the work...
2019-Nov-13 • 60 minutes
Rajiv Sethi on Stereotypes, Crime, and The Pursuit of Justice
Whether or not you think you hold them, stereotypes shape the lives of everyone on Earth. As human beings, we lack the ability to judge each situation as unique and different…and how we group novel experiences by our past conditioning, as helpful as it often is, creates extraordinary complications in society. As modern life exposes us to an increasing number of encounters with the other in which we do not have time to form accurate models of someone or some place’s true identity, we find ourselves in a do...
2019-Nov-06 • 48 minutes
Jennifer Dunne on Reconstructing Ancient Food Webs
Looking back through time, the fossil record shows a remarkable diversity of forms, creatures unfamiliar to today’s Earth, suggesting ecosystems alien enough to challenge any sense of continuity. But reconstructed trophic networks — maps of who’s eating whom — reveal a hidden order that has been conserved since the first complex animals of half a billion years ago. These network models offer scientists an armature on which to hang new unifying theories of ecology, a way to answer questions about how energy ...
2019-Oct-30 • 46 minutes
Jennifer Dunne on Food Webs & ArchaeoEcology
For as long as humans have erected walls around our cities, we’ve considered culture separate from the encircling wilderness. This difference came to be expressed in our “man vs. nature” narratives, beliefs in our dominion over the nonhuman world, and lately even the assertion that the Earth would be better off without us. Ecology research has strangely almost never included humans in the picture. And yet Homo sapiens is a phenomenon of nature, woven into food webs, demonstrating the same principles at work...
2019-Oct-23 • 50 minutes
Luis Bettencourt on The Science of Cities
If you’re a human in this century, the odds are overwhelming that you are a city-dweller. These hubs of human cultural activity exert a powerful allure – and most people understand that this appeal is due to some deep link between the density, pace, wealth, and opportunity of cities. But what is a city, really? And why have the vast majority of human beings migrated to these intense and often difficult locations? Cities breed not just ideas but also crime, disease, and inequality. We live amidst a shift in ...
2019-Oct-16 • 39 minutes
Sabine Hauert on Swarming Across Scales
If complex systems science had a mascot, it might be the murmuration. These enormous flocks of starlings darken skies across the northern hemisphere, performing intricate airborne maneuvers with no central leadership or plan. Each bird behaves according to a simple set of rules about how closely it tracks neighbors, resulting in one of the world’s most awesome natural spectacles.This notion of self-organizing flocks of relatively simple agents has inspired a new paradigm of engineering, building simple, fle...
2019-Oct-09 • 56 minutes
The Origins of Life: David Krakauer, Sarah Maurer, and Chris Kempes at InterPlanetary Festival 2019
A few years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, upsetting centuries of certainty about the history of life, he wrote a now-famous letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, British botanist and advocate of evolutionary theory. "But if (and oh what a big if),” Darwin’s letter reads, “we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity etcetera present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex c...
2019-Oct-09 • 47 minutes
David Krakauer on The Landscape of 21st Century Science
For 300 years, the dream of science was to understand the world by chopping it up into pieces. But boiling everything down to basic parts does not tell us about the way those parts behave together. Physicists found the atom, then the quark, and yet these great discoveries don’t answer age-old questions about life, intelligence, or language, innovation, ecosystems, or economies.So people learned a new trick – not just taking things apart but studying how things organize themselves, without a plan, in ways th...