Brain Camp

By Romeo, Nick | Newsweek, February 20, 2012 | Go to article overview

Brain Camp


Romeo, Nick, Newsweek


Byline: Nick Romeo

Where Cormac McCarthy and other geniuses talk big ideas.

One of the most impressive and eclectic groups in America gathers in a sprawling mansion nestled in the foothills just above Santa Fe, N.M. Once the private residence of a former U.S. secretary of war, the house is now the Santa Fe Institute, a transdisciplinary think tank that aspires to be a kind of intellectual utopia. Lunchtime conversation topics range from game theory to historical linguistics to Sophocles. Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel laureates, and MacArthur "geniuses" wander the halls, scrawling equations on the windowpanes with erasable markers. Novelist Rebecca Goldstein calls it "everything I hoped academia would be as a graduate student."

Almost three decades after its founding in 1984 by a group of scientists frustrated by the narrow confines of the ivory tower, SFI has extended its collaborative ethos by establishing a fellowship to host novelists, playwrights, and philosophers, like Sam Shepard, Daniel Dennett, and Goldstein. But novelist Cormac McCarthy is arguably the institute's most famous figure.

McCarthy began coming to the institute in the 1990s and has been a regular fixture for the past decade. "I've written a few books here," he told me. He first became involved after meeting physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of the quark and a presiding presence at SFI--the Aristotle at this modern-day lyceum.

McCarthy's influence permeates the institute. The sound of his clacking typewriter keys is sometimes audible in the common areas, his questions at seminars often inspire the scientists, and his remodeling work (new mirrors, paintings, and wood paneling) has imbued the physical space with a subtly pervasive aesthetic.

While McCarthy may strike the younger generation as a Luddite, the scientists praise his contributions. …

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