Jennifer Dunne hikes the Anne Nitze trail on SFI’s Cowan Campus (Photo: Gabriella Marks)

In the Fortress of Solitude there’s a chamber that glows red like the Kryptonian sun. There, the 1980 Superman lost his super-speed, super-strength, and ability fly — all the powers that defined him as a DC superhero.

The Santa Fe Institute has always been defined by its ability to bring diverse, leading thinkers into the same room to tackle important research questions. So for SFI, 2020 has been something like stepping into that red chamber in the Fortress of Solitude. Jennifer Dunne, SFI’s Vice President for Science, jokes that the pandemic, with its necessary restrictions on in-person gatherings, “took away our superpower.” 

We recently spoke with Dunne about which aspects of SFI science can and cannot be replicated in a virtual environment, and what this means going into 2021.

Q: You’ve convened workshops and working groups to explore the role of creativity in the scientific process. How do in-person vs. online gatherings play into that process?

Dunne: SFI is very much about the creativity phase of science — the generation of new ideas and new collaborations. Given all the different ways of interacting deeply with people in person on and off campus, that’s much harder to do virtually. On Zoom, due to latency and other issues, you can’t have opportunistic and easy-flowing conversations. The big drawback of online interactions is that you miss that serendipity of bumping into new as well as familiar people in the hallway or over lunch, tea, or coffee breaks. You miss going out to dinner and going on walks. 

But I think people are starting to realize the upsides of the online format. In terms of meetings, you can meet for a couple hours a day, several days in a row, and cater to participants in different time zones — holding half the session on Australia time, and then trade recordings with the half-session conducted on European or U.S. time, for example. Online meetings are also inexpensive and frictionless in a lot of ways, which makes them much easier to organize. Our colloquium staff, our flash workshop organizers, and our Applied Complexity team have also found it easier to engage high-profile speakers and attendees on short notice for online meetings and talks. So there’s definitely an upside to online.

Q: Could you tell us more about some of the science meetings that did and did not convene in 2020?

Dunne: There are several working groups and workshops that were approved to be held in 2020 that never occurred because of COVID-19. But some organizers went ahead and held virtual versions that I think were very successful. David Wolpert* loved his three-day virtual workshop on stochastic thermodynamics co-hosted with the Complexity Science Hub Vienna — he’s said that he finds virtual groups a better format for getting junior scientists to speak. 

David Krakauer’s* Aging, Adaptation, and Arrow of Time group held a virtual meeting on a multi-scale theory of life and death, and they found it helpful to split the group into multiple meetings to prevent zoom fatigue.

Then there were also the very successful, short-format flash workshops on the pandemic, which Cris Moore*, and Michael Lachmann*, and David Krakauer* organized earlier this year. Because of the lower time commitment, they were able to bring in people who would ordinarily be very hard to schedule.

Other organizers of previously approved meetings are waiting until conditions allow them to hold their meetings in person, as originally planned. Another possibility some are considering is holding an initial online version of the meeting and following it up with a regular meeting at SFI in the “after times.”

Q: How do you envision the future of SFI science meetings? Will there still be a place for virtual gatherings after everything “gets back to normal”?

Dunne: I think this is a time of experimenting. When the kryptonite goes away and we get back to in-person activities, we’ll be trying to figure out how to retain some of the best features of the online experience and how to bring people in from afar who have a hard time committing to travel to SFI. Before the pandemic, we’d already started Zooming people in on a big TV screen for the smaller working groups in particular, but what we do for bigger workshops is less clear. So we need to up our game in terms of our technology for melding virtual and in-person experiences at multiple scales. 

There will be a significant backlog of in-person workshops and working groups, so we’ll also need to take of advantage of that online flexibility while also looking toward a future when we can get back to what we do best, which is bringing people together in person for intensive brainstorming and research, as well as food, margaritas, and time spent outdoors.

*Wolpert, Moore, and Lachmann are all SFI Professors. Krakauer is SFI President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems.