Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Universe: Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science-Or a Not-So-New Kind of Computer Program?

By Naiditch, David | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Universe: Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science-Or a Not-So-New Kind of Computer Program?


Naiditch, David, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


IN MAY 2002, AFTER SPENDING A DECADE living as a recluse, the legendary Stephen Wolfram stepped into the public arena with the publication of a book promising to revolutionize the way we do science. For hundreds of years, scientists have successfully used mathematical equations that show how various entities are related. For example, Newton's equation (his second law of motion) F=ma shows us how force (F) is related to mass (m) and acceleration (a). The problem with this approach is that equations fail to adequately describe complex phenomena all around us, such as the turbulence of boiling water or the changing weather. Whereas equations cannot capture such complexity, Wolfram believes that simple computational rules can. Therefore, to model nature's complex phenomena, Wolfram proposes that scientists give up their unwieldy equations and instead employ the types of computational rules used in cellular automata (CA) and related computer programs. These programs repeatedly execute a set of riles that are simple enough for a child to follow. Yet, despite their ultimate simplicity, these programs can generate immense complexity.

According to Wolfram, the discovery that simple riles can generate complexity--a discovery he attributes primarily to himself--is "one of the more important single discoveries in the whole history of theoretical science." (1) The reason he believes this discovery is so important is that it applies to everything in the universe. Computations are not just performed by the chips in our computers. Rather, every physical process, from an exploding star to water swirling down a drain, can be viewed as a series of computations or programs in which the process moves, moment by moment, from some initial state to some outcome. So instead of using equations to describe some of the regularities seen in nature's programs, Wolfram tells us to examine the programs themselves.

A Jedi Mind-warrior

Wolfram is a genius among geniuses, or as Wired reporter Steven Levy says, a "Jedi mind-warrior." Wolfram's brilliance became apparent at an early age. He earned a scholarship to Eton College at age 13. At 15, he published his first scientific paper, a study in high-energy physics titled Hadronic Electrons? In 1978, the renowned physicist Murray Gell-Mann invited Wolfram to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where within a few years he published more than 25 scientific papers. The work he did during his first year at Caltech earned him a doctorate in theoretical physics when he was just 20. At 21, Wolfram became the youngest scientist to receive a MacArthur award for his work in physics and computer science.

At Caltech, Wolfram become interested in explaining how complex structures like galaxies evolved. He gradually became convinced that mathematics was not up to the task. The equations of mathematical physics can describe relatively simple phenomena, but not phenomena as complex and messy as the evolution of galaxies, the dynamics of weather, or the fluctuations of the stock market.

After a feud with Caltech over the rights to his work, Wolfram transferred to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. At Princeton, Wolfram gained access to powerful computers, which he used to perform computer experiments. These experiments led him to the idea that CA and related systems could revolutionize the way we do science.

Despite Wolfram's brilliance, he never adjusted to academic life. He left Princeton, and after a short-lived stint at the University of Illinois, founded his own company, Wolfram Research, Inc. Within a few years, Wolfram made a fortune developing "Mathematica"--a powerful software program that has become a standard for technical computing. Unlike some successful entrepreneurs, Wolfram never lost interest in fundamental science. With his newly found financial independence, he spent a decade or so working in relative isolation at home.

Wolfram performed numerous computer experiments and captured his ideas in his book, A New Kind of Science (NKS), which grew to an impressive 1,197 pages. …

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