Santa Fe Institute

Who were SFI's founders?

Scientist, businessman, and philanthropist George Cowan was the central figure in SFI’s founding and was, albeit somewhat reluctantly, the Institute’s Founding President. As a chemist during the Manhattan Project and Cold War, he played a major role in early U.S. nuclear weapons program diagnostics. His lifelong conviction that science’s primary tasks were to educate people and inform political decision making evolved into his vision for the Santa Fe Institute. Cowan passed away in April 2012.

Physicist David Pines, SFI’s current Founder in Residence, was the Founding Director of the Center for Advanced Study (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). Pines later became the Founding Director of the Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter, which shared with SFI similar organizing principles. By 1983 when Cowan asked him to join the Los Alamos senior fellows in their weekly discussions, Pines had made seminal contributions to the theory of many-body systems and to theoretical astrophysics and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Cowan credited Pines, who served as SFI ‘s Founding Vice President and was Board Chair from 1986-1987, with helping get the Institute through its first five fragile years by using his network of contacts to identify many of the leading scientists and supporters who have played significant roles in the Institute’s history. Pines lives in Santa Fe and spends his summers in Aspen at the Aspen Center for Physics.

Murray Gell-Mann, today an SFI Life Trustee and Distinguished Fellow who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969 for his work on the theory of elementary particles, was at Caltech in 1983 when Pines asked him to join the fellows discussion. Gell-Mann served as SFI’s first Chairman of the Board and, with Pines, was Founding Co-Chair of the SFI Science Board during most of its first decade. He joined SFI full-time in 1993, and since that time has advanced the sciences of complex systems on several fronts. His prestige and network of contacts has attracted many leading scientists and supporters to the Institute. Gell-Mann lives in Santa Fe.

Physicist Herb Anderson was Enrico Fermi’s charismatic right hand man at the University of Chicago during the Manhattan Project. He retired as a LANL senior fellow. He always sought to work with bright young scientists, says Pines, and his proposal to hold a workshop in Santa Fe as a litmus test for the institute the founders had conceived resulted in the birth of the Santa Fe Institute. Anderson passed away in 1988.

Peter Caruthers was a theoretical physicist and protégé at Cornell of Manhattan Project physicist and Nobel laureate Han Bethe. As head of the Lab’s theory division from 1973 to 1983, Caruthers succeeded in returning Los Alamos to its former position as major influence in theoretical physics. He had a “great eye for good people and good ideas,” says Pines. He hired SFI Distinguished Professor Geoffrey West to LANL’s theory division, and he is credited with the term Chaos Theory and with creating the Center for Nonlinear Studies at LANL. Caruthers passed away in 1997.

Physicist and mathematician Nick Metropolis was the gregarious collaborator of Manhattan Project-era figureheads Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Stanislaw Ulam, and John von Neumann and was among the first researchers at Los Alamos National Lab. He led the lab’s computing efforts beginning in 1948 and was involved in designing and building some of the world’s first computers, including the MANIAC I and MANIAC II. Along with Ulam and von Neumann, he led the group that developed the Monte Carlo method. His successful recruiting of talented young scientists and his focus on the emerging capabilities of large-scale computing were probably his greatest contributions to the Institute, Pines says. Metropolis passed away in 1999.

Mathematician and philosopher Gian-Carlo Rota, a longtime LANL advisor and friend of Stanislaw Ulam, also believed in the promise of then-emerging large-scale computing technology and methods and was among the earliest scientists to foresee the coming changes in information theory and information technology. He taught legendary courses on probability theory at MIT for many years, infamous for their high degree of difficulty, and among his eccentricities was his refusal to lecture without a can of Coca Cola in his hand. “Rota and Metropolis would be delighted in our current interest in big data and big data analytics,” says Pines. Rota passed away in 1999.

Physicist Darragh Nagle, a protégé of Enrico Fermi and Herb Anderson, was a brilliant experimentalist who liked to engage with young people. He influenced the field of high energy physics significantly and was among the designers of the LAMPF Meson facility at LANL. His top contribution to SFI was to remind the Cowan Collaborative to think broadly. Nagle passed away in May 2013.

Stirling Colgate, an experimentalist and sometimes theorist who loved to invent things, was in 1942 among the students at the Los Alamos Ranch School who were “graduated without notice” to make way for the Manhattan Project. He then attended Cornell and later, after a stint in the merchant marines, received a PhD in nuclear physics from Cornell. In 1952 Edward Teller, when founding Lawrence Livermore National Lab, asked Colgate to play a lead role in early Cold War nuclear weapon tests, and Colgate eventually became the United States’ premiere diagnostician of nuclear weapons. Colgate was interested in all high-energy phenomena and was infamous for chasing tornados in his private plane. Colgate passed away in 2013.