Warm light from stained glass windows illuminates a wall covered with scientific scribbles. Computers and researchers fill the nuns' quarters. The mother superior's bedroom is crammed with files, and a metal cross hangs over the copier.
The perfect place for some divine inspiration? Perhaps.Scientists have replaced the sisters at the former Cristo Rey Convent, a unique setting for what they believe is a unique approach to solving some of the world's most perplexing problems.
The Santa Fe Institute, a quirky collection of great minds from different disciplines, was created in 1984 by a group that believed the really tough unknowns had outgrown the structure of the nation's universities and national laboratories.
The institute, which boasts of the involvement of four Nobel laureates, hopes to someday offer a new understanding of the world's economy and of the human body's immune system, which may somehow work in similar ways.
The scientists think maybe they can find a way to predict the stock market, or help solve horrible diseases.
"This is a different way of looking at basic science, and we believe that new understanding of the world is going to come out of it," said SFI president Ed Knapp. "We're on the verge of making some interesting innovations."
Already, some major sponsors like Citicorp, IBM and the MacArthur Foundation think the Santa Fe Institute may be on to something. The Department of Energy also has been providing some funding, as has the National Science Foundation.
In its short lifespan, the institute has been doubling every two years.
"It's clear we are now beginning to have the tools to address some of the important problems facing the world," said L.M. Simmons Jr., a physicist and SFI's executive vice president.
"The time is right to attack some of these problems, and I see the Santa Fe Institute as a way of accelerating that change," he said.
What SFI does is bring together physicists and economists, biologists and computer scientists, even archaeologists and linguists, to marry their expertise and think about problems in new ways.
The interdisciplinary work is based on the relatively new scientific theory of "complex systems" - looking at systems as a large number of parts that interact, rather than just a sum of separate pieces.
Can principles of physics help economists model the world economy in advanced computers? Can the seemingly unpredictable gyrations of the stock market actually be the result of not-yet-understood equations? Could those equations be similar to the mysterious inner workings of the human immune system?
"I'm trying to learn from these people what ideas are already around," said Alan Perelson, a theoretical biologist and immune-system expert who splits his time between SFI and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Those that come to the institute are free from the departmental constraints of universities and the contract-oriented bureaucracy of the national laboratories to stare out the window and think, or play with new notions on sophisticated computers, or carry a lively discussion long into the night.
"People find the intellectual atmosphere here different. Things happen here that don't happen at their home institutions," Simmons said.
SFI, founded by noted physicist George Cowan, traces many of its roots to Los Alamos, one of the nation's three nuclear weapons and scientific research labs. Los Alamos was established during World War II for the Manhattan Project to build the world's first atomic bomb. Cowan, a Manhattan Proj-ect participant, Knapp and Simmons all came to the institute from Los Alamos, about 40 miles to the north-west.
The institute draws faculty from around the world who agree to spend a minimum of one month a year at SFI working on projects. SFI runs workshops and publishes papers. Its permanent staff numbers only 11, its budget only $2.5 million.
Like Los Alamos in the early days, some see SFI as the nation's newest scientific Shangri-La. Although not well-known publicly, and still struggling for financing, SFI is hot in scientific circles.
The institute received 200 applications for one postdoctoral position recently; this summer, SFI will be seven desks short for the scientists that have agreed to come.
"Many of the scientists feel this is the most exciting scientific proj-ect since the Manhattan Project," said Jim Pelkey, a venture capitalist who serves on SFI's board of directors and recently moved from San Francisco to Santa Fe.
"Something exciting is happening here, but no one knows what it is yet," he said.
If successful, the institute's work in economics might quash long-held theoretical beliefs and change the way individuals, companies and governments spend money. SFI is trying to build a computer economic model that would more accurately explain phenomena like stock market crashes or the Latin American debt crisis.
It was the possibility of being able to predict a future Latin American debt crisis that attracted Citicorp Chairman John Reed to SFI. Reed attended a conference in 1986. Excited about what he saw, he decided to put up some money and ask the institute to work on a new, improved model of the world economy.
That work already has yielded better understanding of banking issues such as credit, Citicorp vice president Henry Lichstein said.
"Have we gotten our money's worth out of it? The answer is yes," Lichstein said.
In the past, economists studied how one person behaved in isolation and believed that markets and economies sought equilibrium. SFI has begun to challenge those assumptions, believing that one consumer interacts with many factors rather than making decisions in isolation, and that markets are in a constant state of flux, not trying to reach equilibrium.
The human immune system may actually behave in the same way. The body's defense against disease has to efficiently allocate resources when it is fighting diseases, it recognizes patterns, and it has a memory capability that allows it to "store" vaccinations and to fight things it recognizes from the past.
The same could be said for a company, or for a nation's economy, or even for the world's economy.
"A number of people feel there are some central issues involved in understanding complex systems," said Perelson, the biologist. "We think some of the principles in the immune system may be important for other systems."
The immune system work has another goal, of course - finding a way to better fight cancer, autoimmune diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, and maybe even AIDS.
"I think in the next 10 years, we'll see some dramatic results," Perelson said. "I wouldn't say that we're going to get around to curing cancer. We're looking at very new, novel approaches, and it's very encouraging that we're seeing commonality between these complex systems."
This summer, SFI will leave the former convent and move to an office building.
But long-term funding remains a serious need, and the institute's hopes for a small, permanent campus and a small endowment - "so we wouldn't have to go hat-in-hand all the time" - remain on hold, Knapp said.