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charlesandfelixAlmost as soon as I entered the lobby of the Lensic on Saturday night, I could see that the audience was different from the usual symphony crowd. I spotted Geoffrey West, a physicist and theoretical biologist whose work I wrote about years ago in the New York Times, and Doyne Farmer, who appears in my book Fire in the Mind. There were other scientist friends like Joseph Traub, the Columbia University mathematician. Sandra Blakeslee, fellow science writer and cohost of the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, was in the audience. And during intermission I nearly collided head-on with Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobelist whose exploits I chronicled in Strange Beauty. I don’t think he has ever forgiven me. I felt for a few hours like I was living in a small town.

Science is as much a part of Santa Fe’s soul as music and art. With the Santa Fe Institute and the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra both turning 25 this year, they had come together to produce Voyages of Discovery in honor of Charles Darwin and Felix Mendelssohn, who happen to have been born 200 years ago.

While waiting for the show to begin, I talked for a minute with Cormac McCarthy, who once advised me that “a semi-colon is simply an excrescence similar to bird lime.” (He had been reading the manuscript of The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments before it went to press.) He has also raised my suspicion of commas. I’d met him in the 1990s at a Santa Fe Institute dinner, and I remember his lamenting the lack of a really good biography of the quantum theorist Paul Dirac. (There is one now: The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo.)

Davis mansion and Santa Fe Institute

Davis mansion and Santa Fe Institute

Symphony concerts customarily begin with board member and psychotherapist Penelope Penland, her hair radiant as electrified neon, thanking the evening’s underwriter — usually Garrett Thornburg or Eddie and Peaches Gilbert. This time it was Andrew and Sydney Davis. Earlier that day the New Mexican reported that the county had finally finished determining the value of their new home, which looms on a hilltop over the Santa Fe Institute: $20.4 million. County Tax Assessor Domingo Martinez says it’s probably the most expensive house in New Mexico. One can only hope so.

Other than the coincidence of their births, Darwin and Mendelssohn didn’t have much in common. But if you look hard enough you can find connections. Both men went on big boat trips and got very seasick. They came home and produced great works — Origin of the Species and the Scottish Symphony. Only the former is indispensable.

Between renditions of the composer’s work, the actor Jonathan Richards read letters from Darwin. Kirk Ellis, a documentary television producer, filled in for Mendelssohn. David Krakauer, a Santa Fe Institute researcher and impresario, alternated with the orchestra’s conductor, Steven Smith, in providing commentary. Whether or not this all congealed, it was a noble experiment and a good excuse for bringing two different Santa Fes under one roof.

It was snowing after the curtain calls, and music was booming from Evangelo’s across San Francisco Street. Back at home I searched the web for a list of other 1809 birthdays: Abraham Lincoln, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Kit Carson, Edgar Allen Poe. A century later in 1909 Wallace Stegner, Al Capp, Lionel Hampton, Malcolm Lowery, and Vivian Vance were born. Samuel Johnson arrived on earth in 1709 as did Jacques de Vaucanson, famous in some circles for inventing a mechanical duck, an early attempt at artificial life. Maybe they all could be squeezed somehow into a grand finale celebrating Santa Fe’s 400th —  and the human preoccupation with anniversaries that end in zeroes, or at least with a 5.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review