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The World According to Wolfram

Brian Hayes

Arthur C. Clarke wrote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In the same vein, perhaps any sufficiently advanced science risks being mistaken for the raving of a crackpot.

This uncomfortable thought is prompted by a book that has landed on my desk with a five-pound thud. The title promises A New Kind of Science, and inside are claims no less extravagant. "I have discovered vastly more than I ever thought possible," the author's preface boasts, "and in fact what I have done now touches almost every existing area of science, and quite a bit besides." In 1,200 pages, this one volume—the work of one person—undertakes to explain the structure of space and time at the deepest level, clears up the mysteries of entropy and randomness, and elbows aside mathematics and statistics as central tools of scientific analysis. Along the way, the book also corrects the errors of Darwinism, shows where chaos theory went wrong, explains the forms of seashells, tree leaves and snowflakes, and puts human free will on a proper philosophical footing.

The author acknowledges that these grand ambitions may be met with a measure of skepticism. "If I myself were just to pick up this book today without having spent the past twenty years thinking about its contents, I have little doubt that I too would not believe many of the things it says." But he urges patience and perseverance. To assimilate the new ideas "will require an investment of years comparable to learning an area like physics." Those mired in the old kind of science may resist at first, but, "In time I expect that the ideas in this book will come to pervade not only science and technology but also many areas of general thinking. And with this its methods will eventually become a standard part of education—much as mathematics is today."

Such grandiose visions are often a telltale sign of the crank, and there are other reasons to be wary here. The author has been working in seclusion and secrecy for 10 years, and during that time has submitted none of his results to peer review. The publisher of the volume is the author's own company, so that even now there was been no opportunity for independent editorial judgment. The circumstances suggest a person cut off from the social context of science.

And yet the author of A New Kind of Science is not an outsider, and he is not a crank or a crackpot. He is Stephen Wolfram, physicist, computer scientist and entrepreneur. Wolfram published his first paper in particle physics at age 15 and earned a Ph.D. at 20. He was a precocious professor at Caltech, then moved to the Institute for Advanced Study and later the University of Illinois before leaving the academic world to create the software called Mathematica. His ideas deserve a reading even if they are presented in a manner that raises both eyebrows and hackles.

Before proceeding further I should disclose my own occasional interactions with Stephen Wolfram. As a magazine editor I once invited him to write an article; some years later I wrote a review of Mathematica (and accepted a complimentary copy of the software, as well as a T-shirt); on another occasion I wrote for The Mathematica Journal, which was sponsored by Wolfram Research, Inc. More recently, as a condition of being allowed to see A New Kind of Science in advance of publication, I signed a nondisclosure agreement, which has now expired. And a few weeks ago Wolfram and I met to talk about the book.

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