W.W.Norton, 2003, 268 pages, C$39.00 hc, ISBN 0-393-02123-8
I have no perceptible interest in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but contemporary science interests me and I’ll read anything by Ed Regis… so that’s how I ended up with The Info Mesa, an exploration of “Science, Business, and New Age Alchemy on the Santa Fe Plateau”. It’s a non-fiction account of how science is increasingly being funneled through computers, as shown through the biography of four men who founded high-tech companies in Santa Fe. As with other Regis book, it couples engaging portraits of scientists at work with broader consideration of science as it is being practiced today. Much like other Regis books, The Info Mesa is sometimes superficial and often more triumphant than latter events (or an impartial observer) would suggest. But as far as science nonfiction goes, it’s another pleasant read and it even has a few things to teach its readers.
The story of how Santa Fe became a hotbed of scientific research begins with the Manhattan project, which grew in the nearby city of Los Alamos. With such a formidable gathering of scientists, it was only natural that some of them would remember the area fondly and propose it years later as a location for a research institute specializing in unusual problems. Whenever there’s a research institute, there’s also high probability of start-ups, and that’s how Santa Fe (population: less than 200,000 in the entire metro area) ended up with a small specialized number of companies specializing in high-end computer research as applied to science.
The broad scientific development that Regis tackles in The Info Mesa, beyond some wonderful descriptions of Santa Fe that would make the local Chamber of Commerce give him an honorary membership, is how science has gradually shifted its research in the digital realm. This happened early in physics, as computer simulations of physical events were relatively easy to model in software: Nuclear explosions are non-trivial to simulate well in silico, but they’re considerably easier to clean up than the real thing. Meanwhile, the computerization of fields such as biology and chemistry would have to wait for a few crucial developments: The wide availability of powerful computers, and the codification of a common descriptive language. One of The Info Mesa’s most fascinating tangents is about how David Weininger refined a way to codify the presentation of chemical compounds. SMILES (Simplified Molecular Input Line Entry Specification) neatly cuts through centuries of chemical confusion to present an unambiguous, human-readable and machine-usable way to present complex chemical compounds. It’s nothing less than a small study in human ingenuity.
It’s also a neat entry in the biographies of the four men that Regis follows in an attempt to illustrate the development of the Info Mesa. Weininger is described as a rock-star scientist: He flies his own jet planes (one of them, a decommissioned Russian fighter jet, bought cash-in-hand on an airport tarmac from a weapons dealer), lives in a house that once belonged to SF/Fantasy writer Roger Zelazny and helped build a molecule statue in front of his company’s building. Meanwhile, The Info Mesa also tracks the lives of Anthony Rippo, Stuart Kauffman and Anthony Nicholls, writing warm portraits of them as scientists and entrepreneurs as they transform knowledge into money. (Regis is notably glib about the latter, and scrupulously avoids discussing the darker side of, say, bulk-patenting molecules. But that’s another book in itself.)
The net effect of efforts like those from the Santa Fe companies is that biology and chemistry research is now, in many ways, susceptible to primarily take place within computer simulation. Drug research stems from new molecules, and digital simulations allow to generate reams of “dry” theoretical data (seeking which molecular structure would bond with a certain neuro-receptor, for instance) in far less time than it would to perform actual “wet” chemical experiments. Properly applied, computers can speed up vital research by orders of magnitude, and the field is still young. Apply those same computers to data mining large amount of existing data, and you may even find something new and invisible to earlier methods of analysis. (In between the gosh-wows, I couldn’t help but notice how many of those innovations post-dated my own formal science education.)
An expansion of Regis’ own Wired June 2000 article “Greeting from Info Mesa”, The Info Mesa is another readable account of how science, technology and humanity interact in new ways. It’s occasionally scattered, obviously present the best side of everyone involved and probably overestimate their importance in the grand scheme of things, but there’s plenty of fascinating stuff here to make up for the rest.