Back to Reality

I returned to the East coast today after spending a month in New Mexico at the Santa Fe Institute's Complex Systems Summer School.

The school was a fantastic experience, and I highly recommend it.

Some things I learned, in no particular order:

  • Asking interesting questions is sometimes more important than having a method on hand to answer them.

  • Old habits die hard. A speaker would admonish us not to do something, and within the next week, we would see someone doing precisely that thing.

  • Complex systems is a field defined largely by its questions, not its techniques. Though some techniques stand out: agent-based models (really, a generalization of cellular automata), nonlinear dynamical analyses of systems (either through modeling or time series methods), networks (a topic du jour this summer)

  • Not many statisticians were present at the summer school, as participants or lecturers. With a few important exceptions. This is strange, since statisticians, almost by definition, study complex systems.

  • Interests vary widely. We had several lectures on ecology that I couldn't follow, despite the speakers best efforts. Mostly because I have very little interest in ecology. I imagine the ecologists in the crowd felt similarly about lectures on the mini-max optimality of kernel methods for non-parametric regression.

  • When can one begin to call oneself a physicist / biologist / computer scientist / mathematician / economist / etc.? Mostly, we all self-identified as one of these (or many other) specialties. But I still feel uncomfortable introducing myself as a mathematician in a non-specialized academic setting. I don't want people to get the misimpression that I have a firm understanding of measure theory, for example.

  • This is a multinational field. I met more non-US researchers this summer than I have in my entire life. Many of the researchers from Europe are earning PhDs specifically in Complex Systems Science. We have far fewer such degrees in the US. It's interesting to see Europe beat out the 'New World' in this regard.

  • Physicists, especially former particle physicists, dominate the Institute's ranks. Which is interesting, since I have so very little interest in fundamental physics. I agree with Sean Carroll that the physics underlying the everyday world is largely understood. This is a risky claim to make. Physicists at the end of the 19th century made similar claims. But this time we're right? Anyway, physicists are great at entering a field, equations blazing, and coming out intact.

  • I can no longer distinguish age groups. If you're over 22, I probably think you're in your mid to late 20s. I imagine that assumption will grow linearly with my own age.

  • Santa Fe is blessed with beautiful weather, sans the drought. Climate change is no fun for forest fires.

Well, that's it. I may reflect more on the experience when I'm less tired. This will have to do for now.