Jacob Foster

From Santa Fe Institute Events Wiki

About me

Hi all, Jacob Foster here. I am in the second year of my PhD in the Complexity Science Group, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Calgary. Before moving to the forbidding north I received my B.S. in Physics from Duke University, and I'm technically still a D.Phil candidate in Mathematics at the University of Oxford, where I was a proud resident of Balliol College. So my training is more or less in theoretical/mathematical physics, although I also spent quite a lot of time as an undergraduate and graduate student learning Med/Ren intellectual and art history, ancient languages, literary theory, and sociology. Even now it is unclear for what career I was preparing myself, but so it goes. I am an avid reader of books, an enthusiastic listener of classical music, and a courageous consumer of martinis. I also like to cook and hike when I can get my act together, though my favorite pastime is probably highly animated discussion over good food and drink.

Tragically, I suffer from logorrhoea, as you can see below.

The Questions

What are your main interests?

At the moment I am most interested in the related problems of niche construction in adaptive radiation and the emergence of coherent structures in social systems. On a concrete level, I want to develop and relate experimental and modeling tools to probe/build theory about these phenomena--and am particularly interested in microbial models and in terrorism. More abstractly, I am interested in the appropriate mathematical language for describing novelty in a dynamical fashion, without putting it in a priori.

Part of my general turn from the natural to the social sciences is a preoccupation with what it means to take the social sciences seriously; that is, not merely as a field of phenomena to be investigated using conventional quantitative tools imported from the physical sciences, but as fields with their own histories, rich theoretical traditions, and so forth. I think it imperative for real interdisciplinary workers to engage with the theoretical traditions of the social sciences, and to find in them rich veins of inspiration for modeling, empirical analysis, and (mathematical) theorizing.

Hoisting myself up to a real blue sky perspective, I find my long-term interest increasingly focused on the impact of complexity on intellectual history. Does complexity lead to a different paradigm for the interaction of quantitative expertise, data, and policy? Does it suggest alternate theories of jurisprudence? A new theory of democracy? What are its implications for the philosophy of science?

What expertise can you bring to the group?

I am generally pretty adept at analytical work, with particular expertise in network statistical mechanics. I'm also familiar with random processes with memory, although my work there is numerical at the moment. I can code in C and am learning Python, although I would not describe myself as a "good" or even "okay" programmer; not in the sense of nasty looking code, more in the sense of minimal competence. On the other hand, I've studied some of the more unfamiliar reaches of the human sciences at a reasonably high level, so have plenty of practice translating for a natural sciences audience, and vice versa. I am a technically competent writer, and thanks to my theater background know how to give a decent talk. Oh, and I know a bit about experimental microbiology.

What do you hope to get out of the CSSS?

I am very much looking forward to learning about agent based modeling, which comes up more and more often as a sensible way to explore some question that interests me. I also look forward to learning from the other participants and the lectures about the state of the art in various fields, as I find interdisciplinary stimulation almost as necessary as coffee. I'm hoping to engage my fellow students in lots of long and perhaps infuriating discussions about how to take the social sciences seriously, and more generally look forward to "agenda setting" conversations where we try to scope out the evolution of our still young field. Probably this is my preoccupation with intellectual history sneaking to the surface!

On a completely unrelated note, I love spicy food and am really looking forward to some culinary exploration.

Possible projects

There are a few possibilities here. I've got an agent-based model related to terrorism I've always wanted to try out, which might be fun. On a more speculative note, a lot of international relations literature has come out of late from both the left and right that uses "complexity" thinking, if sometimes implicitly--say Arquilla and Ronfeldt's old stuff on Netwar, Galloway & Thacker's recent The Exploit, Hardt & Negri's Empire, now Philip Bobbitt's Terror and Consent; even Amy Chua's Day of Empire could fit in there somewhere. It might be fun to get a group together to study this stuff and see if we can build interesting toy models.