interesting article on Mad Scientist Stephen Wolfram

The Man Who Cracked The Code to Everything

He invariably introduces each topic in a similar fashion: Curious to know about _______ [CHOOSE ANY SCIENTIFIC DISCIPLINE] and how his new theories might apply, he decides to take a look at the history of the field. Amazingly, he concludes, for hundreds of years so-called experts have failed to answer key questions that should have been easily resolved centuries ago. (Wolfram's disappointment in his predecessors is bottomless.) But when Wolfram applies the ideas from A New Kind of Science, he begins making progress and expresses the hunch that not long after his ideas are understood, the biggest problems will quickly be resolved, transforming the field.

To list only a few examples: Wolfram finds an exception to the second law of thermodynamics; conjectures why extraterrestrials might be communicating with us in messages we can't perceive; explains seeming randomness in financial markets; defines randomness; elaborates on why the "apparent freedom of human will" is so convincing; reconstructs the foundations of mathematics; devises a new way to perform encryption; insists that Darwinian natural selection is an overrated component in evolution; and, oh, theorizes that there's a "definite ultimate model for the universe." What might this be? The mother of all rules; a single, simple "ultimate rule" that computes everything from quantum physics to reality television.

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17 Responses:

  1. substitute says:

    Doesn't he realize that all of this work has already painstakingly been completed by L. Ron Hubbard?

    • jwz says:

      His claims do make him sound like a complete kook -- but Mathematica isn't really comparable to Battlefield Earth...

      Also, there's more money in religion than in pissing off scientists.

      • 33mhz says:

        Also, there's more money in religion than in pissing off scientists.

        Thankfully for the enterprising soul, these pursuits often overlap.

      • jcurious says:

        THE ANSWER can be found by buying my $45 book which has been blessed by the only printing company that can print it, and buying my $$$$ program.

        All hail mathmatica!

    • anonymous says:

      Heh. It reminds me about Hari Seldon and his Psychohistory.

  2. scosol says:

    i dunno- the idea that randomness and complexity could come from many iterations of small things with simple rules has been demonstrated and I believe is accepted by almost anyone who knows anything about anything
    ---
    his big answer is cellular automata; which i dont see as much of an answer at all :)

    • ciphergoth says:

      What I can't work out is whether anyone really thought otherwise. Isn't the idea that the Universe has simple rules and a simple beginning and that the complexity we see today is a result of the interaction of those rules at least 150 years old?

      Similarly, I never got why chaos theory was surprising. No, let me rephrase that. There's something interesting and surprising in the fact that we can characterise "chaotic" NDSes and find commonalities across them (bifurcation, "Period Three Equals Chaos", Feigenbaum's Constant etc). But I can't believe that 30 years ago people believed that nonlinear dynamical systems with similar starting conditions would maintain similar states. Haven't these people read "For Want of a Nail"?

  3. flipzagging says:

    I had a look at ANKoS when it came out. I'm not qualified to really comment on it, but I had a hard time even finding any substantive claims.

    It's like "hey, CA can be really complex, just look at this graph! And here's this other thing in nature that's kind of complex, look at this similar graph! Therefore, CA is a more powerful way of understanding it, and one day CA will replace all the science currently known to describe this phenomenon. I leave this task to you, the reader, because oh! here comes another field!"

    AFAICT never defines complexity, other than "it makes a picture that I can't find a pattern in." That's the bedrock of his Principle of Computational Equivalence; graphs that the human brain finds similarly incomprehensible must be equivalent. Argument by illustration?

    But it's all kinda purty in a data porn way. Eventually I just turned the pages numbly, letting the graphics wash over me like the projections at an electronica concert.

  4. xach says:

    Kent M. Pitman wrote to comp.lang.lisp about the young Wolfram at Caltech. Pitman took issue with Wolfram's claim that Lisp was "inherently 100 times slower than C."

    He in fact did not purport to be adequately competent on the matter of
    computation at the time but he pointed to a stack (literally) of books
    (I'd say about a foot high) including the Knuth books, the compiler
    book with the dragon on it, and a number of other really standard
    texts. He then said "I'm going to read these and then I'll know as
    much as you."

    Mad scientist indeed.

  5. anonymous says:

    Ray Kurzweil did a very thorough review of Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science" here:

    http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0464.html?printable=1

    Some juicy quotes for the impatient:

    "It's hard to know where to begin in reviewing Wolfram's treatise, so I'll start with Wolfram's apparent hubris, evidenced in the title itself. A new science would be bold enough, but Wolfram is presenting a new kind of science, one that should change our thinking about the whole enterprise of science. As Wolfram states in chapter 1, "I have come to view [my discovery] as one of the more important single discoveries in the whole history of theoretical science.""

    "I do find the behavior of Rule 110 rather delightful. However, I am not entirely surprised by the idea that simple mechanisms can produce results more complicated than their starting conditions. We've seen this phenomenon in fractals..., chaos and complexity theory"

    "It is also not surprising that a deterministic process can produce apparently random results."

    "Wolfram effectively sidesteps the issue of degrees of complexity..."

    "Wolfram... over-generalizes the limited power of complexity resulting from simple computational processes."

    "In summary, Wolfram's sweeping and ambitious treatise paints a compelling but ultimately overstated and incomplete picture."

    My own take on ANKOS: Wolfram is incredibly arrogant, and yet provides absolutely nothing new. However, because the book concerns cellular automata and other "new science" buzzwords and because of Wolfram's own hype, geeks who should really know better but are too desperate to be seen as riding the bleeding edge, are flocking all over it.

    Sad, but kind of comic in its own pathetic little way.

  6. anonymous says:

    Ray Kurzweil did a very thorough review of Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science" here:

    http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0464.html?printable=1

    Some juicy quotes for the impatient:

    "It's hard to know where to begin in reviewing Wolfram's treatise, so I'll start with Wolfram's apparent hubris, evidenced in the title itself. A new science would be bold enough, but Wolfram is presenting a new kind of science, one that should change our thinking about the whole enterprise of science. As Wolfram states in chapter 1, "I have come to view [my discovery] as one of the more important single discoveries in the whole history of theoretical science.""

    "I do find the behavior of Rule 110 rather delightful. However, I am not entirely surprised by the idea that simple mechanisms can produce results more complicated than their starting conditions. We've seen this phenomenon in fractals..., chaos and complexity theory"

    "It is also not surprising that a deterministic process can produce apparently random results."

    "Wolfram effectively sidesteps the issue of degrees of complexity..."

    "Wolfram... over-generalizes the limited power of complexity resulting from simple computational processes."

    "In summary, Wolfram's sweeping and ambitious treatise paints a compelling but ultimately overstated and incomplete picture."

    My own take on ANKOS: Wolfram is incredibly arrogant, and yet provides absolutely nothing new. However, because the book concerns cellular automata and other "new science" buzzwords and because of Wolfram's own hype, geeks who should really know better but are too desperate to be seen as riding the bleeding edge, are flocking all over it.

    Sad, but kinda comic in its own pathetic little way.

  7. anonymous says:

    It does look like he has gone off the deep end. However, he did do critical research on cellular automata in the 80's, published in peer-reviewed journals. I believe that he was the first person to point out that since it was possible to construct a Turing-complete computer in Life, it was impossible to determine what a Life game would do in advance for all possible configurations.

    My guess is that his brittle ego led him to think that doing solid peer-reviewed work wasn't good enough for him and he needed the world to be see him as another Newton.

    The Computational Beauty of Nature by Gary Flake includes coverage of CA and it is pretty, accessable to a non-specialist, and not grandious.

    • phygelus says:

      My guess is that his brittle ego led him to think that doing solid peer-reviewed work wasn't good enough for him and he needed the world to be see him as another Newton.

      geez, you say that like it's a bad thing.