In March, 2016, he was named a Miller Scholar of the Santa Fe Institute. As reported in the official announcement, “The Miller Distinguished Scholarship is the most prestigious visiting position at SFI, awarded to highly accomplished, creative thinkers who make profound contributions to our understandings of society, science, and culture. Scholars are internally nominated and may have backgrounds in the humanities, arts, or sciences. During their stays at SFI, Miller Scholars are free to devote their time to exploration of any topic.”
Gonzales first went to the Santa Fe Institute in 2006 and has been a regular visitor and occasional speaker. He was selected for the Institute’s Journalism Fellowship in Complex Systems Science in 2015.
Gonzales is the seventh SFI Miller Scholar, following the author Neal Stephenson; the actor-author-playwright Sam Shepard; Seth Lloyd, a quantum physicist; and the philosopher of science Daniel Dennett, among others. Gonzales is a professional explorer, rooted in what he calls a compulsion to write. By age eight, he was composing embryonic short stories. By the time he started college (for the third time, he never finished), he began publishing his poetry and short stories in various literary magazines.
His formative years in Houston, San Antonio, and Chicago were steeped in science. In about the third grade he began working after school and on weekends in the biological science labs of the medical schools where his father taught. His father, Dr. Federico Gonzales, was one of the early developers of histological techniques for electron microscopy.
As a result, Gonzales learned to become an electron microscopy technician. In 1965 when he graduated from high school, he was snatched up by Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago to run its lab; his expected path, perhaps, was to begin premed at Northwestern.
“At that time, at 17, it seemed a far better idea to run away with a rock-and-roll band,” he says. “Which I did.”
One late night following a gig, the musicians spotted a gleaming, Day-Glo-painted school bus. They chased it down and Gonzales leapt out to speak with the driver. “Where are you guys going?” Gonzales asked. “Right here,” said the driver. “What are you doing?” asked Gonzales. “Come along and you’ll see.”
He came along and soon learned that he had joined up with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. He stayed with them only long enough to party for three or four straight days and nights, but later, in 1973, he reconnected and traveled the country with the Pranksters, helping to found Kesey’s magazine Spit in the Ocean.
By that time he had been hired by Playboy Magazine where, between 1972 and 1978, he worked his way up the masthead to become its articles editor. He also wrote his first novel, Jambeaux, which was loosely based on his experiences as a musician. He wrote two other (“not very good,” he says) novels, but decided that writing nonfiction was much easier and more practical. (“You don’t have to make up the story,” he said. “Besides, they paid you in those days.”)
While at Playboy he began writing about airline crashes. This began his exploration of failure in complex mechanical and coupled mechanical-human systems. He felt that the explanations for these accidents were missing an important element: dealing adequately with the human component of the system.
This also furthered his interest in survival, a curiosity that traced to his father’s survival in World War Two. When Federico Gonzales’s B-17 was shot down near Dusseldorf, Germany, he plummeted 27,000 feet without a parachute and lived to tell the story. (This story begins Gonzales’s book Deep Survival.)
Laurence left Playboy in 1978 to become a freelance writer, and he says he has been unemployed ever since.
During the 80s and 90s, Gonzales wrote articles for Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, and National Geographic Adventure, among other publications. Some of his essays, often portraying his own adventures in setting and thought, have been collected in three books, the latest of which, House of Pain (University of Arkansas Press), was published in 2013.
Over the years, Gonzales never lost his interest in science, nor in questions stemming from airline crashes, such as: Why do smart people do stupid things?
“My father always began his classes at the medical school by saying, ‘Fellow students,’” says Gonzales. “I was a little kid when I first heard him say that, and I objected that he was the teacher, not a student. But he told me that we should all be students all our lives and never stop learning. That taught me two of the most important lessons I ever learned: Everything is interesting if you look deeply enough. And everyone has a story to tell.”
After reading in neuroscience for several years, he wrote the best-selling book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why and its sequel Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, which attempt to answer related questions about how people make bad decisions and what leads some of them to survive and some to perish.
His most recent non-fiction book is Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, a detailed reconstruction of the crash of a fully-loaded DC-10. It was adapted for the stage by The House Theater of Chicago and played to sold-out houses and rave reviews in the spring of 2016.
He has appeared as a speaker before groups ranging from Exxon-Mobil to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and from the Wilderness Medical Society to the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent novel is Lucy (Alfred A. Knopf). His essays are collected in the book House of Pain (University of Arkansas Press). He is also on the adjunct faculty at Northwestern University in the Medill School of Journalism, where he teaches writing when he can get away from his other projects.