A longtime Kalamazoo College professor with connections around the world is being honored by five alumni from the Class of 2009 with a fund in his name that will help support a field of study for years to come.
Péter Erdi was hired as the Henry Luce Professor of Complex Systems Studies in 2002 when the College received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. K’s efforts to attain the grant were driven by a small but vocal group of students who were mathematically skilled and interested in applying their skills to social problems through quantitative models. Ever since, Erdi has influenced many deeply curious alumni, including Brad Flaugher, Jerrod Howlett, Trevor Jones, Elliot Paquette and Griffin Drutchas, who are the five benefactors initiating the Interdisciplinary Fund for Complex Systems Studies in Erdi’s name.
Flaugher, who works in software development for startup companies, double majored in computer science and economics at K. He met Erdi in his first year on campus when he took Computational Neuroscience—a study of the mathematical models, computational algorithms and simulation methods that contribute to an understanding of neural mechanisms—before taking all the classes Erdi offered.
“There were so few of us in his classes—I think in my year we had only three or four computer science majors—that he took all of us under his wing,” Flaugher said. “He got us jobs in his lab with funding. All of us except Jerrod had gone to Hungary to work with him at his lab in Budapest. All of us were studying artificial intelligence back in 2006 and 2007, which was amazing. We were super close to him. He wrote all of us recommendation letters for graduate school. He did everything he could for us and taught us the hottest topic in the world 10 years before we needed it.”
Flaugher was attending an event in Philadelphia last March when President Jorge G. Gonzalez shared examples of how alumni were endowing funds in honor of their favorite or most influential professors. That led Flaugher to rally support from his classmates and recognize Erdi in complex systems studies.
“I talk to Dr. Erdi pretty regularly and I want to keep the interdisciplinary spirit of what he does alive,” Flaugher said. “I think it’s a great fit for a liberal arts institution, and when I was at K, I got not only job skills thanks to him, I got jobs-of-the-future skills.”
Erdi received the 2018 Florence J. Lucasse Fellowship for Excellence in Scholarship, the highest award bestowed by K’s faculty, which honors the recipient’s contributions in creative work, research and publication. He has dozens of publications from his time at K, including two books since 2019, Ranking: The Hidden Rules of the Social Game We All Play and Repair: When and How to Improve Broken Objects, Ourselves and Our Society, which have received international acclaim. He also recently finished another book due out soon, Feedback Control: How to Destroy or Save the World and has served the University of Michigan as a visiting professor and scholar.
Complex systems studies can be described as an examination of how a system’s parts contribute to its collective behaviors, and how the system interacts and forms relationships with its environment. Erdi added that complex systems theory finds connections among seemingly very different phenomena. For example:
- The onset of epilepsy, an earthquake eruption and a stock market crash are different occurrences, but all three are abrupt, extreme events. Complex systems theory looks at the predictability of these events, and interestingly, there are algorithms for predicting the probability of earthquakes that also can be adopted by brokers to estimate stock prices.
- When we look at the spreading of viruses, ideas and opinions, we can examine all three through similar mathematical models.
- Network theory offers methods that can help us understand the structure and dynamics of topics as varied as the human brain, interacting social groups, food chains in specific ecosystems, financial networks and more.
With a program such as complex systems studies being rare at a small college, it has been difficult to efficiently increase its offerings over the years; Erdi remains the program’s sole representative at K despite its interdisciplinary nature, with applications in fields such as physics, computer science and psychology. The fund in Erdi’s name, however—thanks to Flaugher, Drutchas, Jones, Howlett and Paquette getting it off the ground—will ensure the professor’s legacy lives on after his retirement.
Despite the deeply analytical nature of his field, Erdi is also known for his sense of humor. For example, in September 2022, when he spoke at the Brain Bar, a technology and music conference in Budapest, he donned a red T-shirt with the words “OK, Boomer” on it while presenting to and connecting with a young audience. Also, when he was recently asked how he would like to be remembered at K in years after his retirement, he said: “Péter was an interesting character on the campus with his terrible ‘Hunglish’ accent. It looks like he managed to motivate some students.”
In all sincerity, however, Erdi was grateful to hear from Flaugher and his fellow alumni regarding the Interdisciplinary Fund for Complex Systems Studies.
“I knew that I had influenced several students intellectually,” he said. “Maybe five per year is a good estimation, so about a hundred may positively remember my name when they reflect on their college education. Still, the mail from Brad, and then the correspondence with Elliot, Griffin, Jerrod and Trevor, and the establishment of the Fund were wonderful surprises, and I am humbled to have this Fund while I am still active.”