Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Patterns and Play

In Faculty, Research on March 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm

By Luis Arata, Professor of Modern Languages

The invitation to write a brief entry for this CAS blog about my involvement with the Santa Fe Institute came as a delightful surprise. It prompted me to remember how an unbroken research interest that took me from physics to literature brought me almost by accident in 2000 to a conference on models and modeling in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There I met biologist Stuart Kauffman who at the time was a resident faculty at the Santa Fe Institute. Thanks to him I did the first of four two-week long residences at the Institute through 2004.

The Santa Fe Institute was formed in 1984. Scientists, mostly from the Los Alamos National Laboratories, and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann founded the modest-sized Institute to carry out independent research on complex systems. It quickly became the leading place for this emerging area of investigations.

The facility is nestled on a hillside above Santa Fe. A panoramic southwesterly view stretches all the way to the Sandia Mountains by Albuquerque. The Institute is housed in four interconnected, one-level buildings. Its luminous architecture gives the sensation of being embedded in the landscape. The airy interior design invites interactions among the resident faculty, visiting faculty, postdocs, and graduate students.

I could not have imagined a more inviting place to reflect on issues that had been developing in my mind for almost thirty years. In a nutshell, since the time I was a graduate student in physics at S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook, I have been intrigued by the function of play in the fabric of things. Play generates variations that are not quite random. They depend on the player, human or not. But what could be the function of play? And why do we have a persistent tendency to treat play as something ranging from the naïve to the incomplete? I wrote Jean Piaget. He recommended I study with Seymour Papert at MIT, but events took me to Cornell University instead, where I completed a dissertation on theatre as a form of play, then five years performing in a theatre company, followed by a detour that finally brought me to Quinnipiac in Modern Languages. At that time I latched on to Illya Prigogine’s work on self-organizing systems because of its affinity with play. That led me to the emerging field of complex studies and by good fortune to the Santa Fe Institute—the leading independent research center on complex phenomena.

Among the fascinating conversations I had at SFI, four stand out. Physicist Jim Crutchfield told me that he liked to interact with artists because they are into pattern discovery. Computers can find patterns in data when given search parameters. But artists excel at discovering patterns beyond what has been imagined before. Computers work within boundaries. Artists break them to search beyond. A scientist, Crutchfield thought, needs to use both approaches. Coming from the arts and humanities, I could not agree more. But what has stayed with me most of all is the fuzzy sense of pattern itself: rather than laws, to imagine that at most there are patterns, some more enduring than others. If so, evolution and change would permeate all areas within reach of human understanding. Where we now picture laws, soon we might see interactive, self-organizing patterns, some changing faster than others. Laws would be considered powerful modeling concepts rather than necessities of nature.

Economist Sam Bowles showed me how altruism is an essential aspect of behavior that escapes the rational self-interest of standard economic theory. So much more work is needed to bring altruism and cooperation into the fold. He also recommended that I read Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom to appreciate the value of human agency at the heart of economy. These illuminating concepts display the human spirit breaking through previous models of economic machines. They have stayed with me, in my research and across the disciplines I get to teach.

My most unexpected encounter at SFI was with the writer Cormac McCarthy. We met towards the end of my first visit in 2000. I was embarrassed not to know who he was. Could he recommend one of his novels? Blood Meridian, he said after a brief pause. So, what was a fiction writer doing at SFI? He explained that as a MacArthur Fellow he got to meet regularly other Fellows. Scientists were the most interesting of the bunch. Gell-Mann invited him to SFI. McCarthy found the environment stimulating to write. At the time we last talked in 2004 he must have been working on The Road. The novel was so deeply moving that I read it to my son Carlos. He had just turned fifteen. No more bedtime readings after this one. It was a fitting transition.

During my first SFI residency, Stuart Kauffman explained that he had been searching for possible laws that explained the natural drive of a biosphere to innovate. He told me he had found no leads over the years and became stuck. I did not have a chance to speak with him again. He left SFI before my final visit. Recently he concluded that there are no such laws of innovation after all. Biospheres coevolve without laws towards their own possibilities within the constraints of their milieu.

Kauffman’s view of interactive self-organization resonates with what I also came to envision thanks in large part to the exchanges at SFI. Of course, I approached this view from the direction of play. Instead of inflexible natural laws guiding nature, I think of patterns, some more enduring than others, self-organizing, changing together through interactions. The best we might be able to do in such shifting environments is to model and remodel our way through. The idea is to create patterns that make us feel at home, starting from our preferences and aiming for what we would like to accomplish: a feast of the constructive imagination sensing ways through changes.

From the residences at the Santa Fe Institute I drew a sense of excitement about our capacity as players to organize and create in complex, changing environments. This inspires my research on interaction and modeling. I also try to pass it on to my students, especially in my QU 301 sections that focus on interaction and innovation. I wish my students to feel responsibility for whatever craft they learn, for the acquisition of techniques of their choice. And I wish them to sense how they are players in the creative process through informed self-awareness as they cultivate their own styles. I am learning as well.


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