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A belated RIP for James Kay - Zer Netmouse
June 27th, 2007
01:37 pm

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A belated RIP for James Kay
I was just writing to someone yesterday about a former professor of mine, and was saddened to discover that he died in 2004.

James Kay was cross-posted to the Environment and Resources Studies department and the department of Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo, and at various points to the School of Planning, the department of Geography, and the department of Management Sciences at Waterloo and the School of Rural Planning and Development at the University of Guelph.

I took his course on the Epistemology of Systems Thinking, which taught me to be wary of taking any pre-established perspective on a system or its boundaries (and that we establish such a perspective in the social process of talking about something), to be aware of (and marvel at) the emergent properties of both designed and self-organizing complex systems, to be brave enough to address middle number problems (those that are too complex and/or non-linear to calculate in detail, but at the same time too small to model statistically) and also that the most complex problems can be illustrated with clear and helpful diagrams.

Though I have had many favorite professors and teachers, Professor Kay is the one whose stories and theories I pass on the most often, especially his emphasis on examining a system/situation directly in person in order to study it, and his argument that resilience (the ability to adapt to change and self-organize) is more important to a healthy ecology than diversity.


This Memorial by David Waltner-Toews captures the essence of how Professor Kay inspired those around him to look for new angles on old problems and to strive to affect the world positively. Excerpts will give you an idea of why we liked him and were impressed with his insights (but I recommend reading the whole memorial):


For many, James was an exquisite physicist, theoretician on complexity and thermodynamics. In his early work with Eric Schneider, he re-interpreted the second law of thermodynamics, applying it to understand how exergy gradients induce self-organizing structures, and how living systems organize so as to destroy exergy gradients at the fastest rates possible. His work was featured as a cover story on the New Scientist. His 1994 paper with Schneider was recently identified as one of the 12 most important papers in ecology in the 1990s and is included in the Oxford University Press Readings in Ecology.

The irreducible uncertainty of complex life was to him not just a source of frustration, but of humility, and great wonder and amazement and good graphics. It was certainly at the core of how he approached the immense problems of science in the public domain, science for the public good.

He could move from thermodynamics to science fiction to municipal politics with ease, although some might argue that the latter two are not so different after all.

As academic friends will, we would sometimes commiserate about the immense inertia of formal institutional structures such as governments, granting councils and universities. But he wouldn’t let us stop at just complaining. When we founded the Network for Ecosystem Sustainability and Health, James saw it as a way to re-invent the university, to create a forum for intellectual debate, teaching and practice, a critique of business as usual, a way to use new web-based technologies to create that extended peer group demanded by Post Normal Science.

More than once, he confided in me that he was distressed at the way some scholars seemed to believe that one side had to win or lose these debates [on on exergy or energy or integrity or health]. Did we not believe in the reality of complexity? In the necessity for well argued, well articulated multiple perspectives? In the reality of trade-offs?


I was lucky enough to participate in James' Post Normal Science discussion group on campus my last two years at the University of Waterloo. I will never forget the energy and scientific optimism with which he made those discussions a relief from the everyday struggle of graduate work. I hope someday to consider some of my professional or public work to have been inspired by his.

Current Music: Mozart: Symphony #25 in G Minor, Stabat Mater: Quando Corpus Morietur & Amen

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