A Digital Oasis in the Desert

By Otis Port


Science, Business, and New Age Alchemy

on the Santa Fe Plateau

By Ed Regis

Norton -- 268pp -- $25.95

Bioinformatics, genomics, proteomics. If you have been wondering what these words mean and what the big fuss is all about, you should check out Ed Regis' wide-ranging The Info Mesa: Science, Business, and New Age Alchemy on the Santa Fe Plateau. Many other books have delved into "complexity" theories -- the rigorous effort to understand natural phenomena based on a mingling of biology, mathematics, physics, and chemistry. But Regis' stands apart for two reasons: He weaves an interesting tale around the people who pioneered this intellectual revolution and brought it to critical mass in the Santa Fe (N.M.) area. And while the book has some organizational problems, Regis explains the major facets of complexity with minimum mumbo-jumbo, so readers can appreciate why complexity stands the traditional approach to science on its end.

The story starts at Los Alamos National Laboratory, 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe. For nearly five decades, Los Alamos has used sophisticated computer simulations to probe the incredibly complex chain of events that produces a nuclear explosion. By the early 1980s, these simulations were becoming so accurate that George Cowan, a former director of the Los Alamos lab, realized that computer models could provide valuable insights into other scientific issues. So, in 1984, he formed the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) as a nexus for researchers using complexity theory and chaos theory to model real-world organizations, processes, and product design.

The new think tank soon became a draw for high-profile talent, starting with its superstar chairman, physics Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann. A few luminaries got permanent cubicles in SFI's offices, housed in a former convent. Others came to attend one or another of SFI's conferences on complexity -- to learn how complex phenomena can arise from the dance of a few simple elements -- and decided to make Santa Fe their home. Regis' cast of characters includes 30-odd scientists and physicians who, starting in the early 1990s, caught complexity fever and ended up founding the two dozen companies that in 1999 formed InfoMesa LLC.

First onto The Info Mesa's stage is chemist David Weininger. Regis introduces Weininger as he's flying the 1960s-vintage British T5A fighter-bomber he bought from an arms dealer in 1996 -- a "gift to himself for having invented a new language for chemistry" called SMILES (Simplified Molecular Input Line Entry System). In 1987, SMILES was the initial product of his company, Daylight Chemical Information Systems Inc., and is today a standard in cheminformatics -- chemical and pharmaceutical databases and software that can simulate new compounds and discover new drugs far faster than conventional lab methods.

Next up is Dr. Stuart A. Kauffman, co-founder of BiosGroup Inc. Kauffman tackled complexity using an army of "ants" -- small software entities called agents that are modeled after the dynamics of ant colonies. His explorations with agents helped Southwest Airlines (LUV ) Co. improve its cargo operations and streamlined the supply chain at Procter & Gamble (PG ) Co. The solution devised for Southwest Airlines shows just how nonintuitive the results drawn from biologically inspired simulations can be. Kauffman proposed putting a package on the first departing plane, regardless of where the aircraft is heading, and keeping it onboard until the package reaches its intended destination. Simulations showed this would slash freight transfers by 75% and cut labor costs by 20% -- and it did, saving Southwest more than $10 million in the first year of operation.

Despite such success stories, BiosGroup is no more. By the end of 2001, it had begun laying people off. And things got much worse after Regis' book went to press. By early 2003, only around 20 of 150 people were still employed -- and almost all of them lost their jobs in March, when NuTech Solutions Inc. in Charlotte, N.C., acquired BiosGroup.

Still, the tale of BiosGroup makes for fascinating reading, mainly because of Kauffman, a 1987 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." Regis describes him as wanting "from the very beginning to understand absolutely everything. And if that weren't enough, he wanted to understand it deeply, totally, and completely."

At times, the author's hyperbole regarding Kauffman is off-putting. Another irritation is the way The Info Mesa hops back and forth, with some sections resuming discussions of characters using only their first names, forcing you -- unless your memory is better than mine -- to wonder, momentarily, whether "Tony" is Anthony Rippo, the physician and violin maker who founded Bioreason Inc., or Anthony Nicholls, the British-born biophysicist who started OpenEye Scientific Software Inc. and knighted himself "El Presidente."

Nonetheless, for an approachable glimpse into how complexity and informatics are influencing the course of scientific discovery, technology, and business -- with simulations so uncanny that they distill real-world events into a rapid flow of numbers and algorithms -- The Info Mesa is hard to beat. Regis did a trial run of this book for Wired magazine in June, 2000. It's available at www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.06/infomesa_pr.html. If that whets your appetite, The Info Mesa will furnish plenty of elaboration and details. It may also cause you to wonder whether your company needs the newfangled tools that came to life in old Santa Fe.

Port attended his first SFI conference in 1992.

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