When Big Sur Met Silicon Valley: Remembering The Santa Cruz Nonlinear Dynamical Systems Collective

When Big Sur Met Silicon Valley: Remembering The Santa Cruz Nonlinear Dynamical Systems Collective

I spent Memorial Day weekend with extended family members in Santa Cruz, near where many of them live, but with none of them right there  It was most pleasant, but explaining the nature of the place and the University of California branch there led me to think more deeply about the place.  I am not aware of anybody else saying this before, but it struck me that Santa Cruz is a place where some decades ago Big Sur met Silicon Valley.

The place remains a very pleasant Northern California beach town, where tourists like to go and long have.  It was fully crowded this past weekend, difficult to get to the Wharf and Boardwalk downtown and Natural Bridges State Park.  All of this has little to do with these other matters.  But sharp local  observers note that there is an “old” and a “new” Santa Cruz.  The old is symbolized by older wooden houses, some with funky sculptures in the yard and funny mailboxes. This all has a touch of Big Sur somewhat further south along the coast.  One can run into Air Bnb landlords who are cameramen for the Dalai Lama and talk about how well they knew Timothy Leary and own 41 acres in Big Sur and so on.  Yes, really.

The new Santa Cruz is symbolized by newer more expensive places, some with funky mailboxes, but they are not falling over.  Many of these people earn often substantial their money over the Coast mountain range in Silicon Valley a half an hour away.  Big Sur may have been there first, but Silicon Valley is fully there now, and the place is gentrifying fast,.

As it was, from the time that Silicon Valley first got itself going in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a parallel development in Santa Cruz that both fed off of that and in its own way fed into it, if not as much as Stanford University did.  This was the founding in 1966 and subsequent early history of UC-Santa Cruz, sitting on top of a hill northwest of the center of town.  From the beginning it combined an ideal of innovative and progressive education with a highly mathematical, scientific, and technical focus with much emphasis on computers, perfect for its proximity to the developing Silicon Valley.  The former fed off the nearby Big Sur with such places as the Esalen Institute, which was always about serious intellectual and philosophical matters (and still is) as well as the more famous artistic and beat/hippie carryings on there.  On the technical side a curious aid for UCSC upfront was the propitious proximity of the Mount Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, then second only to Mount Palomar in size, which helped attract top astronomers, who helped bring in the physicists and the mathematicians and computer scientists.

This curious confluence had a special period in the late 1970s and early1980s, one of those serendipitous agglomerations.  Four physics grad students showed up who would had similar interests and would come to form the Santa Cruz Nonlinear Dynamical Systems Collective, also known as the Santa Cruz Chaos Cabal.  First in the door was Robert Stetson Shaw in 1975, who would receive a MacArthur Fellowship in 1988.  He was at the Institute for Advsanced Study in Princeton for awhile. In 1984 he published the book, The Dripping Faucet as a Model  Chaotic System.  According to James Gleick in his 1988 (pb in 2008) Chaos: Making a New Science, which has probably the longest discussion of this group available, Shaw was not just the first in the door at UCSC, but was the real intellectual star of the group.  However, googling him pretty thoroughly shows him basically disappearing after about 1988, no publications, no places of work, although it appears he is still alive, with a younger brother, Chris, a prominent documentary filmmaker.  I have never met him.

The rest of them came in around two years later.  Two already knew each other from high school in New Mexico, with J. Doyne Farmer, probably the best known of them and the one who has done the most work in economics and finance, a prominent econophysicist and co-founder of the journal, Quantitative Finance.  He is also the one I know the best and has by far the longest Wikipedia entry of the four, with many projects and activities under his belt.  After UCSC he would do a post-doc at the Los Alamos nuclear lab before moving to the Santa Fe Institute, where he remains an external professor, although now mainly based  at Oxford University in the math department where he runs the Complexity Economics Center associated with the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET). He has also been more involved in various business enterprises than the others.

His old school friend is Norman Packard, now at the Center for Complex Systems Research at the University of Illinois and also maintaining a connection with the Santa Fe Institute. Illinois has long had among the most powerful of supercomputer systems of any university in the US, and Packard has been a major developer of cellular automata and artificial life modeling as well as coining the term “edge of chaos.” He also spent time at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and has worked a lot with Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica. He has been involved in some of the econophysics modeling of financial markets with Farmer, as well as some of his business enterprises. While I have not met him, I know much of his work well.

The final  of the four students is James Crutchfield, who would go to the physics department at UC-Berkeley after finishing at UCSC.  In the late 1990s he moved to the UC-Davis physics department where he established and leads the Center for Complex Modeling, and he also maintains a relationship with the Santa Fe Institute.  I have met him.  Although officially a physicist, much of his most influential work has involved modeling complex evolutionary dynamics as well as questions of computational complexity. I have probably drawn on his work more than that of these other three in my own work, a big fan of it I am.

Before they became the Santa Cruz Dynamical Systems Collective, they were Eudomaenic Enterprises.  They set out to, and succeeded, in developing a system to beat roulette wheels in Las Vegas.  This involved carrying portable computers and a mechanism to measure subtle vibrations of the tables. However, despite a couple of successful trips in which they beat the House by 20% on average, they could not make serious money due to casino security people catching on to them.  Some of this would feed into the main company that Farmer founded, with Packard in tow, the Prediction Company, that did financial market investing.  He sold it in 1999 to the Swiss bank UBS. He has formed or been involved in several other companies since.  I have long found it interesting that while people often say to economists, “If you are so smart, why aren’t you rich?” this dictum is taken seriously by the more serious econophysicists, including Didier Sornette and Jean-Philippe Bouchaud, who have also done very well with their own trading companies.

They had two professors who abetted their efforts and helped them get through UCSC to their PhDs, although at the time the physics department at UCSC really did not know how to handle them or fully appreciated what they were up to. The main person who got them through their dissertations was Michael J. Burke, who had been a student of Richard Feynman’s at Cal Tech and had some interest in nonlinear dynamics. He died in 1996.

However their main intellectual mentor was a math professor, Ralph Abraham, now 82 years old and emeritus at UCSC, one of the giants of the field of nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory, and complex systems, still active.  He coined the terms “chaotic hysteresis” and “chaostrophe,” among numerous other ideas, with his work influencing mine more than any of these others. He was very into visualizing through computer simulations multi-dimensional strange attractors, and some of those he discovered/invented have ended up on tie-dye t-shirts.  He looks like Jerry Garcia, and more than any of these others he is the one with the most serious Big Sur and counterculture connections, with these being encouraged by his even hipper brother, Fred, who wrote Chaos Theory in Psychology and runs the Blueberry Brain Institute in Vermont.  I know and deeply respect both of these brilliant and innovative intellectuals.  In any case, it may be that with his array of interests and discoveries and influence, Ralph Abraham may be the central figure in this weird but creative confluence of Big Sur and Silicon Valley that came to fruition in the late 1970s in Santa Cruz.

Barkley Rosser