The Obituaries page of The New York Times is a rich source of inspiration for the stories of people who have made a difference. Last Thursday’s page recorded the life of John Henry Holland who died age 86 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he spent his entire career at the University of Michigan where he was a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and a professor of psychology. In the mid-1980s he be became a core participant in the Santa Fe Institute which had been created by senior scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for the interdisciplinary study of complex systems which, according to The Times, quickly became a clearing house for the most advanced ideas in the field. Holland’s work was seminal in the field of genetic algorithms, or computer codes that mimic sexually reproducing organisms which proved crucial in the study of complex adaptive systems, a field he helped create.
Why am I writing about a clearly brainy guy expert in a field I can only imagine at? I was taken by the closing paragraph of the obit: “Dr Holland often said that he picked up his best ideas by talking to people outside his field – linguists, musicians and poets. “My own idiosyncratic view is that the reason scientist burn out early is that they dig very deep in one area and they they’ve gone as far as its humanly possible at that time and then they can’t easily cross over into other areas. I think at the heart of most creative science are well thought-out metaphors, and cross-disciplinary work is a rich source of metaphor.”