Economist, June 2, 2011
Edited by Andy Ross
Stephen Wolfram is the creator of
Mathematica and the
founder of Wolfram
Research. Born in London in 1959, he studied at Eton and Oxford. He
published his first scientific paper at the age of 15, completed a Ph.D. in
particle physics at the California Institute of Technology, and had joined
the faculty and been awarded a MacArthur "genius" award, worth $128,000, by
the age of 21.
The MacArthur money helped Dr. Wolfram set up his
company, Wolfram Research, in 1987. Its first product was Mathematica, a
piece of software that solves equations, plots graphs, creates models, and
analyzes data. Mathematica is hugely popular among engineers, scientists and
financial analysts, and its success gave Wolfram the financial security to
continue to do his own thing as an independent scientist and researcher.
His most recent venture is
Wolfram Alpha, a
website launched in 2009 that he describes as a "knowledge engine that
computes answers to questions." With many years of the project yet to run,
Wolfram Research already claims to have the largest collection of curated,
cross-checked data in the world.
Wolfram Alpha is ambitious, but it
pales next to Wolfram's boldest project: an attempt to convince the
scientific establishment that computer programs, rather than mathematics,
are the best way to describe and explain the complex systems that are
widespread in nature. Wolfram calls this approach a new kind of science, or
NKS. That is also the title of the 1,200-page book, published in 2002, in
which he lays out his theories, the product of a decade's reclusive work.
NKS is chiefly concerned with the behavior of very simple computer
programs, called cellular automata, that exist in a myriad of variations.
Although most are uninteresting, a few of them can exhibit great complexity.
One of them produces an endless stream of random output, and another has
proven to be the simplest ever universal Turing machine, a hypothetical
device capable of solving any computational problem that was defined by
Turing in 1936.
Wolfram believes that all the vastly different
complex processes seen in nature are the products of such simple
computations. He proposes that the universe is underpinned by a set of
simple computational rules capable of producing vast complexity, and that
nature is just "sampling what's out there in the computational universe." He
claims that applying NKS widely could lead to advances not only in
mathematics and computing but also physics, biology and even the social
"I have come to view NKS as one of the more important
single discoveries in the whole history of theoretical science," Wolfram
declares in his book with characteristic immodesty. Needless to say, not all
his peers agree. To say that NKS is far from widely accepted would be an
understatement of Wolframic grandiosity.
AR Read my 2004 review of NKS