Peer Learning

Designing your program around your unlikely advantages

Bart Doorneweert

In 1938, the German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman discovered nuclear fission, which made it theoretically possible to build an atomic bomb. Albert Einstein was amongst the scientists that warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States of the potential that Germany could now develop "extremely strong bombs, of a new type". It was only a matter of time. In an effort to come out first, the US and UK government initiated The Manhattan Project with the objective to build the atomic bomb.

Putting the atomic bomb together, required disciplines that ranged from chemistry and physics to the specific skills of uranium refinement, isotope separation, plutonium purification, nuclear decay measurement, nuclear-waste disposal, and radiation biology. This knowledge was tied to scientists at different universities located in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. The project was in need of a place where great thinkers could discuss problems freely, and reduce wasteful duplication of effort. No single university could host this complex collaboration between disciplines.

A temporary location would be needed - one that was remote enough to be secret, inland enough to be safe from enemy bombers, and attractive enough to inspire scientists to move there.

A location for The Manhattan Project was found at a remote private ranch school for boys in Los Alamos, just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, which happened to be close to the project director's own ranch.

Initially the thinking was that the site needed to host 50 or so people, but by the end of the Manhattan Project, three years later, the little school had turned into a small village of 3,500 people. It had also attracted some of the greatest scientific minds at the time, like Niels Bohr and Richard Feynman.  Bohr was famous for inventing the model of the atom (which is the one most of us now know, with electrons orbiting the nucleus). Richard Feynman was so talented that while a student at Princeton, Albert Einstein had attended his first lecture.

This became the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which continued the interdisciplinary work on developing atomic weapons after the Second World War, all throughout the Cold War.

In early 1980's, David Pines, a physicist from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was an advisor to the Lab’s theory division. He started an informal weekly lunch discussion amongst the Lab's senior scientists, just outside the Lab director's office. The theme of those lunch discussions centered on the big problems in science, not just atomic weapons.

“We weren’t disillusioned,” Pines explains. “But we recognized that universities were ill-equipped to nurture emerging new fields, and we were thinking about how we could help them grow."

At one of the lunches, Pines involved a consultant to the Lab, Murray Gell-Mann, hoping that Murray's prestige as a Nobel Laureate might help in turning the idea into something concrete.

Soon after Gell-Mann joined, the lunches started being devoted to the idea of founding an institute in Santa Fe that would apply the success of their interdisciplinary approach to these bigger scientific problems.

It was the first thing that all of us thought of. An institute that would not be run by the government, would not be devoted to classified matters, and would genuinely be open, and international.

My point of view, which was eventually supported by everybody, was that it ought to be very broad and consider a great number of fields. From mathematics and computer science through physics and chemistry to evolutionary biology, ecology, neurobiology, psychology, immunology, economics, anthropology including archaeology, political science, history, something like that–linguistics, also, that sort of range.

But the question was still open as to how the institute would operate and what, in these many fields, would we do?

By far the biggest obstacle at that point, says Pines, was that “we had no audience.”

Herb Anderson, another founding member, offered a possible solution. He suggested a workshop in Santa Fe with as many top scientists as would participate. “The idea was to bounce our idea off of people and see what they thought of our game plan,” says Pines.

Murray Gell-Mann remembers their doubts:

I was calling people who were in very different fields, had never heard of me or had barely heard of me, and I was fairly sure what their response would be in most cases. If they were busy, famous people they would say,’ I'm really... what you propose is very interesting, your institute sounds very nice, but you know I'm awfully busy. I have my research and my students and my consulting and my lecturing and I'm writing a book and I really don't have any time. Please don't call me, I'll call you’."

Instead, the people whose names we selected, people we had heard were interested in interdisciplinary co-operation, almost always said the opposite, something like, ‘Can't I come sooner? I've been waiting for this all my life’. Something of that kind, it was very heartening.

The founding workshops turned out to be very productive for the fledgling institute.

What was surprising was that it turned out the talks had many things in common, and in particular most of them were about simplicity and complexity and a great many of them were about evolution, learning and adaptation. So it became clear then that our fate lay in that direction, that we ought to try to encourage people who would think about topics related to that set of questions: simplicity and complexity, and what we came to call complex adaptive systems.

Funding was another concern

I thought we could raise an endowment of one to two hundred million, since there were so many wealthy people and if we persuaded… if we explained the situation properly they might be willing to give very large sums of money for a new exciting adventure, including very excellent people.

Well it didn't work out that way.

As donations started to arrive, they were for one to five thousand dollars, far less than expected, and many were from members of the board themselves.

Pines later explained that at that point the focus shifted to attracting “sufficient funding for a few sample workshops that would indicate what we were capable of doing.” Gell-Mann became the Institute's first chairman to further this mission.

The Santa Fe Institute never achieved its original funding ambitions, but still succeeded. It turned out to more about the people it attracted and their interests. “It was a mix of brilliant thinking and emergent collaborations among those attending our workshops,” Pines concluded.

Since those founding days the Santa Fe Institute has contributed to numorous breakthroughs in science.

Gell-Mann shares one of his favourites:

Why is it that for mammals all the way from a shrew to an elephant, the metabolic rate is proportional to the 3/4 power of the mass; the same for birds, the same for vascular plants and so on?

In plain English, if one animal is twice the size of another, it doesn't need double the food, it needs less. Why is that? Scientists called this phenomenon 'scaling'.

The answer turned out to lie in our layout of veins. Organisms require an efficient supply network  for nutrients, and disposal of waste. The stuff these networks need to distribute is the same for all organisms: oxygen, nutrients, etc.

By combining modelling research from biology and physics, the research at Santa Fe showed that if you have a dog that is twice the weight of a rabbit, it's vein network will be much more than twice the area of the rabbit's. This enables the dog to use it's veins with less effort.

This higher efficiency in effort can be calculated exactly with a power law formula.  This formula was validated with a modelling method in physics called fractals, which is used a lot by physicists to describe things like how much matter is in the whole universe.

The theory later turned out to translate well to other scaling phenomena. It helped solve questions like, what happens to cities or companies if their sizes are doubled? What happens to buildings, or economies if they are halved? Should cities that are twice as large have twice as many roads? Should the profits of a company twice the size of another company be double, or more?

All it took was to build this new theory was to break the ice between a biologist, and a physicist.

They met at the Santa Fe Institute, and were introduced to each other by Mike Simmons or someone, and started working very soon afterwards on explaining this mystery in biology.

They proved a scaling law that had been known for most of the century. I think it was brilliant!

Finding your interdisciplinary advantage

There's always something particular you can see to your ecosystem that is just a lure of something that holds potential, but others don't see.

Richard Feynman, who was 25 at the time, recalls how the government recruited scientists for the Manhattan project:

You have to understand that, in those days, people hardly knew what a physicist was. Einstein was known as a mathematician, for instance—so it was rare that anybody needed physicists.

There was a big excitement at Princeton. General Trichel from the army came around and spoke to us: “We’ve got to have physicists! Physicists are very important to us in the army! We need three physicists!

Whether or not your interdisciplinary potential works out as you expected, it still leads to giving you some kind of unique advantage. Because whatever comes out is actually something that can only be established in your unique part of the world.

Being unique means that nobody has really done things before in the way you are going to do it. When the Manhattan Project started, they didn't really know what they needed to assemble the atomic bomb. There was only an opportunity to try, based on a theory.

The starting point rarely needs big names or large amounts of money. Defining what your program will look like, that tends to be the hard thing, but only if you're too prescriptive.

A good strategy then is to just invite other people in, like in the case of the Santa Fe Institute. They may not explain precisely what you need to do, but their ideas will give you a clearer sense of direction.

There are some deep pitfalls to interdisciplinary work though. If people aren't able to connect with each other and open up, then the discussion will stay quite shallow. It's hard to go deep, and this disappoints people.  So it's important to:

  1. Gather people that have a cooperative inclination
  2. Provide some structure that quick-starts collaboration

At these exploratory stages, only a little structure is needed. Too much structure starts to feel onerous, but fun, intellectual puzzles are attractive.  Consider inviting someone to share one of their deep challenges with others over dinner, or find a common hands-on challenge that relates to everyone's experience differently.

At the early Sante Fe workshops, people weren't instructed to talk about complexity, and systems. Those topics came up by themselves. You don't need to force a direction, but rather, put people together to see what emerges.

When people start to click, you'll see that they pursue those challenges themselves. They'll start to feel empowered, enabling you to take a supporting role.

These explorations will reveal concrete directions, which in turn extrapolate to longer term possibilities, and what your next steps should be.

This is an excerpt from our upcoming book: The Peer Learning Guide. Follow the link for the Table of Contents, and some more reads.

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