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George Cowan, Founding President of Santa Fe Institute: 1920-2012

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George Cowan, a Manhattan Project scientist and civic leader who helped pioneer the interdisciplinary investigation of complex adaptive systems and served as founding president of the Santa Fe Institute, died today at the age of 92.

As a chemist who also spent nearly 40 years in research and administration at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Cowan was SFI’s president from 1984 to 1991. He also helped establish the Santa Fe Opera and served as longtime chairman of the Los Alamos National Bank.

"George Cowan's death is a huge loss to us all," SFI President Jerry Sabloff said in a statement. "He was a wonderful person with a visionary understanding of the nature and role of science in the world today. He will be greatly missed by everyone associated with the Santa Fe Institute."

Given to wearing a silver bolo tie emblematic of his adopted home of New Mexico, Cowan served on the SFI board of trustees until his death. During World War II, he conducted nuclear research at the University of Chicago, Oak Ridge, Columbia University and Los Alamos. He moved to Los Alamos full-time in 1949, just as the Cold War was heating up.

By the 1980s Cowan had grown increasingly concerned by the fragmentation of knowledge among scientific disciplines as peer review and the academic tenure process produced deeper expertise within ever-narrower specialties. At the same time, he became one of the first scientists to explore the quantitative investigation of nonlinear complex phenomena for which SFI has become famous.

George Cowan

George Cowan

As Cowan and fellow LANL scientists batted these ideas around, a plan emerged. With the support of Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize-winning Caltech physicist, they incorporated the Santa Fe Institute in 1984, setting up shop in an old convent in 1987 (a move to the current campus came in 1994). Cowan’s role as bank president helped the fledgling organization get on its feet, Gell-Mann remembered in an interview last fall.

Today, SFI’s faculty and research fellows study such diverse phenomena as the dynamics of financial markets, the history of languages, the prediction of conflict, the growth of cities and the operation of neural networks.

Even after handing over the president’s reins, Cowan remained deeply committed to SFI’s mission, as he told me in 1991 when I interviewed him for a Los Angeles Times story. “It's precisely because information is getting more and more specialized and fragmented that you have to do this," he said. "Otherwise, you totally lose any kind of coherence."

Michael Haederle

Killing the Death Penalty

5 p.m. PDT, April 12, 2012

Capital punishment in America took another step toward extinction today, as the Connecticut legislature voted to abolish executions for all future cases, the New York Daily News reports. That makes Connecticut the fifth state in the last four years to do so, and the latest sign of a growing nationwide rejection of the death penalty, as we detail in “The Cycle of Death” in the upcoming debut issue of Pacific Standard.

That rejection, though, isn’t driven by concern about the morality of taking a killer’s life; it’s driven mainly by fear that courts are sentencing innocent people to death. In that spirit, Connecticut governor Dannell Malloy was quick to reassure the public that he’s not interested in being nice to convicted murderers. “We will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience,” said Malloy. “Let’s throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail.”

Vince Beiser

Where the Wind Blows

11:25 a.m. PDT, April 9, 2012

To get power from a wind turbine, as many have pointed out, you obviously need wind. And a lot of it. So in the quest to create offshore wind farms on the Eastern Seaboard, a new study says, engineers at Stanford have built a sophisticated weather model to determine the ideal locale—and a new approach to harnessing the wind.

The model found that by having four interconnected wind farm sites, both near-shore and further offshore, energy output could be balanced across the grid by harnessing daily sea breezes as well as the less-frequent, but more intense frontal storms.

Land-based wind farms tend to create peak outputs at night when demand is lowest. The new model’s offshore combination could provide a more-consistent stream of power, to better match peak productivity with peak demand, and cut the frequency of no-power events—where individual wind farms are producing zero electricity—in half. The study, said Mark Z. Jacobson, the papers senior author, “should be seen as a tool for energy planners to better inform their renewable energy decisions across a densely populated area.”

Offshore wind isn’t a new idea. But currently there aren’t any offshore wind farms in the United States. Knowing the most productive place to put them might be the first step. After all, energy sources—whether they be coal mines, solar panels or wind turbines—obey the first three rules of real estate: location, location, location.

Matt Skenazy

Obama’s Pacific Pivot: Day One

4:05 p.m. PDT, April 6, 2012

One hundred eighty U.S. Marines landed on the Australian north coast on Tuesday. Should China be worried? The move appears to fit with the much-discussed American military and diplomatic build-up around the Pacific Rim. It sure looks like a message to Beijing, but America’s ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, denied it.

“There’s this kind of sexy, fun narrative that you hear from pundits and others trying to suggest this is about China, but it’s not,” said Bleich it on Sky TV over the weekend, as The New York Times reported.

Hard to square his comments with the rapid reorientation of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus towards the re-invigorated Asian power. Just take the astonishment this week at a report released by the Brookings Institute claiming China’s leadership sees itself as the long-term favorite in a head-on competition with the United States for hegemony.

We asked Bruce Cumings, a Korea expert who recently authored Dominion From Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power, his thoughts.

“If you believe [the ambassador], you probably also think you down pheasants by pointing right at them,” replied Cumings.

“In fact this ‘pivot’ is part of a series of defense policy moves that amount to the most significant transformation of the American military position in the world since the Soviet Union collapsed. Perhaps this new defense posture may even rework the post-World War II order itself, founded on Atlanticism and NATO. If we are witnessing the dwindling of Europe, a withdrawal from insoluble Middle East and South Asian crises (Iraq and Afghanistan), the pull of a growing China, and an America turning around to face the Pacific rather than the Atlantic, this is no small matter.”

The context Cumings offered made it sound reasonable to believe that this day in Darwin might someday be seen as a pivotal bookend to Nixon’s trip to China, 40 years ago last month.

“For the half-century after Pearl Harbor wars both hot and cold kept Western Europe and the U.S. tied in a close embrace,” he said. “Today, however, President Obama appears to have a different pheasant in his sights — the PRC — and he is leading his quarry by surrounding him with new policies and arrangements starting from Burma and going all the way around Southeast and East Asia, even to North Korea (with whom Obama made an important agreement on Leap Day 2012). Eventually we may look back on Darwin as the symbol of a new ‘Pacificism’ in American foreign policy.”

Look for Cumings’ in-depth analysis of the “Pacific pivot” in the upcoming inaugural issue of Pacific Standard.

Michael Fitzgerald

Tracing Chocolate Easter Bunnies

1:05 p.m. PDT, April 6, 2012

In honor of the sweetest holiday this weekend: If the United States really wants to maintain its title as global hegemon it’s really going to have to do a better job competing in the crucial chocolate market with cocoa behemoths like the Ivory Coast and the Netherlands. Another web gem from the excellent Datablog at The Guardian newspaper’s site, which not only offers its own graphic but lets you download the underlying spreadsheet and make your own yummy visualization. The blog is part of a larger data empire — the Data Store — at the paper.

Michael Fitzgerald

‘Maker’ Industries Still Making U.S. Jobs

12:20 p.m. PDT, April 4, 2012

Economic peril still lurks. And yet, manufacturing expanded again last month, at its fastest rate since before the recession in key industries. Fifteen of 18 reported improvement, including mining, steel, and other metal production, oil and gas, autos, and furniture.

While other outlets have pointed out the resurgence of manufacturing nationwide, the inaugural issue of Pacific Standard—out in two weeks—highlights just how crucial a role the sector continues to play on the West Coast. Not in the graphic but relevant: according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data, in terms of compensation of employees (the BEA’s term for the total amount of salary, wages, and benefits paid out to employees each year), manufacturing has been neck-and-neck with health care since 2009—and that was the first year in American history that any industry paid out more than manufacturing.

It’s true that health care and retail each now employ more people, and financial services contribute far more to the U.S. GDP. But, So-called “maker” jobs still put a lot more money in pockets than all other fields except health care. The numbers this month (as well as the renewed interest from corners of academia, Wall Street, and the White House) reinforce the sense that manufacturing means more to our future than it has in recent years, and maybe never didn’t matter.

Michael Fitzgerald

Dimmer Future for Political Futures

9:20 a.m. PDT, April 4, 2012

In January Emily Badger asked if we should buy financial options on presidential candidates, citing both political event contracts that the North American Derivatives Exchange wanted to market and the work of business academics at the University of Iowa who rigged up their own political futures market that isn’t open to the public.

Perhaps the question Emily ought to have asked wasn’t “if” but “can,” and to the disappointment of those who would have hedged their Herman Cains or taken a punt on Rick Perry, the answer would be no. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates option trading on American markets, this week prohibited NADEX from selling derivatives “that pay out based upon the results of various U.S federal elections to be held in 2012.” The feds argue the contracts are tantamount to gaming – the family friendly word for gambling – and therefore not fit for U.S. financial markets.

NADEX, for its part, said it “felt strongly” the options were legal and it was better to offer such derivatives on a transparent, regulated playing ground and not in some back alley off K Street (I think they’re looking at you, Intrade).

Michael Todd

Forage Fish Famine

12:30 p.m. PDT, April 3, 2012

The little fish that big fish need to survive are in trouble. Smaller forage fish, like sardines and herring, account for 37%, by weight, of all the fish caught worldwide, up from around 8% 50 years ago, according to The New York Times. A report released Sunday by an international group of marine scientists details the reduction of forage fish in the world’s fisheries and recommends cutting catch rates in half. These forage fish are largely ground up and used as feed for bigger fish on aquaculture farms.

Many farmed carnivorous fish — the ones that end up on our plates — eat a diet consisting of 20-40% fish-meal and can’t be coaxed into becoming vegetarians. But that didn’t stop Aaron Watson, a researcher at University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, from trying. Watson discovered that adding the amino acid taurine to the mix of plant based food finally got the carnivores to eat their vegetables.

Read our story on Watson here.

Matt Skenazy

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

5:28 p.m. PDT, March 30, 2012

Facing fuel price riots on Tuesday, the city council in Madiun, Indonesia, avoided violence by having a concert. According to local reports including this English-langage one, the council contracted a local Dangdut group, specializing in the mix of Arabic and Southeast Asian melodies that's wildly popular in Indonesia, to play a free concert the same time as the planned demonstration. Dangdut's Vegas-like costumes, nakal (“naughty”) dances, and male and female eye candy crowding the stage, appears to have distracted enough of Madiun’s protesters to thin their ranks at the barricades. Opposition organizers were left stuttering: “Even though some of the protesters are busy dancing and enjoying the entertainment provided, deep down we are all still rejecting the central government’s plan to raise the [subsidized] fuel prices in April,” said a local politician and opposition leader named Subari, to Jakarta’s Globe newspaper. Elsewhere across Indonesia, demonstrations against the planned end of a long-standing gasoline subsidy led to pitched battles between riot police and protesters.

Marc Herman

Is Neighborhood Watch Useless?

5:17 p.m. PDT, March 30, 2012

Thanks to the killing of Trayvon Martin, we know that neighborhood watch programs like the one his shooter George Zimmerman was involved with can cause tragedy. But do they also prevent tragedies the way they're supposed to, by reducing crime? There's little hard evidence to show that they do. A Justice Department meta-study of 18 research projects on such programs found that while the research showed an average crime reduction of 16 percent in neighborhood watch communities, "some programs work well while others appear to work less well or not at all."

However, an earlier study by a different branch of the Justice Department concluded that "Neighborhood Watch is ineffective at preventing crime.” That study explains: “The primary problem found by the evaluations is that the areas with highest crime rates are the most reluctant to organize…. Many people refuse to host or attend community meetings, in part because they distrust their neighbors. Middle class areas, in which trust is higher, generally have little crime to begin with, making measurable effects on crime almost impossible to achieve." Both studies and summaries can be found on Harvard University's Journalist's Resource.

Vince Beiser

Iraqi Militant Factions for Dummies

5:00 p.m. PDT, March 30, 2012

Here in the United States, Iraq is so 2011. But despite the loss of American media attention, that long-suffering Arab nation is still afflicted with plenty of mayhem, perpetrated by a dizzying range of groups from Al Qaeda to the Mahdi Army. For those who have an understandably hard time keeping track of all the players, Stanford political science professor Martha Crenshaw has created a handy “map” of the many groups and their connections. The map — more of an interactive timeline, really — takes a bit of parsing to navigate, but the collection of profiles of the different groups is very useful. Also depressing, considering how many of them are still busy killing people.

Vince Beiser

Why Scientists Can’t Write

4:49 p.m. PDT, March 30, 2012

We read a lot of scientific papers, so it’s comforting to learn that we’re not the only ones who find them sometimes, er, less than emotionally thrilling. Adam Ruben, author of the subtly-titled Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School, breaks down the rules of writing for scientific journals on (where else?) Science magazine’s blog.

As Ruben explains: “Scientific papers must begin with an obligatory nod to their own relevance, usually by citing exaggerated figures about disease prevalence or other impending disasters. If your research does not actually address one of these issues, pretend it does. … For example, you might write, ‘Twenty million children die of scabies every day. OMG we built a robot kangaroo!’”

Vince Beiser

Thank You for Not Choking

3:21 p.m. PDT, March 30, 2012

Why did Billy Cundiff of the Baltimore Ravens miss an easy field goal in the dying seconds of last year’s NFL playoffs? For decades scientists and sports psychologists have been trying to figure out why athletes choke when the pressure is on, and how to prevent it, Jaimal Yogis explains in ESPN the Magazine. One possible new fix: The emWave, an iPod-like device that measures heart rate variability, letting the athlete see in real time how their body is responding to old fashioned sports psychology tricks like meditation. Given that elite military teams use it just before going into action, there might just be something there.

In our last issue, Tom Jacobs reported on a study that determined the prime time to crack under pressure. Cundiff was right in the choke zone. I wonder if the Wildcats have an EmWave for this weekend?

Matt Skenazy

Don't Medicate, Operate

3:20 p.m. PDT, March 30, 2012

Two new studies in the New England Journal of Medicine say weight loss operations are more beneficial to Type 2 diabetics—the most common type—than the medicine that’s traditionally used to treat the disease. The studies were relatively small though, and probably won’t prompt the National Institute of Health to change their recommendations on who are the best candidates for surgery.

In the first issue of Pacific Standard, we profile a doctor in Appalachia who’s turning diabetes treatment upside down in his own way. Here’s a hint: he’s not operating on folks. It will appear here mid-April.

Matt Skenazy