Science Foundation Ireland

Letter from New Mexico

I had a choice: write a letter about the beautiful landscapes of New Mexico (known as the Land of Enchantment) where I am attending a summer school about complex systems at the fantastic Santa Fe Institute. Or, I could write about the amazing people I’ve met since I arrived here last month. So, in the spirit of emergence and self-organisation, it will be about us, the summer school attendees and the atmosphere we have created here.

To be honest, I think I’ve found my tribe: Most of the people here work on highly interdisciplinary projects and know what it feels like to have a mismatch between their original field of study and their current research area.

For all of us, complex systems science is a big part of our research, though few of us are complex systems scientists. The material we get each day is perfectly clear and gives us material for every lunch discussion, joint paper idea, project proposal or simple banter full of puns (where else could you make log-log plots the butt of every joke?) It’s the complex science Hogwarts, just with great Mexican food.

There are 80 people here and the diversity in academic background, career stage, academic and industrial fields, temperaments and interests means every day is a trip down a rabbit hole of ideas and experiences. We gather daily in the scenic environment of the Institute of American Indian Arts, which is a complex system of its own! An hour-long lecture gives a starting point for the fifteen-minute discussion over a cup of tea or coffee, and then it just slides into another hour of exciting lectures from the best people in the super-field of complex systems. Everyone knows the lecturers, and you can hear the whispers in every corner as we read the schedule: “Oh, it’s Dr X tomorrow, how awesome is that?”

Instead of writing this letter, I should be working on one of our projects right now. And what a curse to have so much choice of project topics in our little world: at some point, you have to stop reading new project descriptions and run away from siren’s call. “I’ve got a project already! I mean two. Three, if you really want to know. Four, but I’ll give up on this particular one. Maybe.” From social challenges in dystopian sci-fi communities to fundamental questions of scaling and mass extinctions of species, the projects appeal to anyone with a deep interest in the questions of emergence, self-organisation and complexity, be they architects, archaeologists, ecologists or engineers.

There aren’t many engineers here, but we all seem to have an engineering, hacking spark in us: How to organise a midsummer celebration with Nordic songs on Native American sacred land; how to start a wild céilí and discover that everyone in the group is Scottish, Irish, or both; how to organise flower picking in the middle of the desert (pro tip: buy flowers and leave them along the trail). We solve these challenges with the same passion that helps us solve the problems of circuit design, control strategy selection or the modelling of wildly complex systems.

We’re halfway through the summer school, and the magic goes on. We learned how to breathe -Santa Fe is 2,200 m above sea level. This is also the best spot for stargazing and sunset watching,  and there’s a tribe of wanderers from all four corners of the world who actually know what we’re talking and thinking about.

“I’m so proud of all of us,” a new friend I met here likes to say—and I couldn’t put it better myself.

CONNECT is the world leading Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Future Networks and Communications. CONNECT is funded under the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centres Programme and is co-funded under the European Regional Development Fund. We engage with over 35 companies including large multinationals, SMEs and start-ups. CONNECT brings together world-class expertise from ten Irish academic institutes to create a one-stop-shop for telecommunications research, development and innovation.

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