October 3, 2002

'Genius' Award Winner Wolfram Talks on Science

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The youngest-ever Macarthur Foundation “genius” award recipient, Stephen Wolfram, explained theories from his book, A New Kind of Science, to a packed Call Alumni Auditorium yesterday.

In addition to founding a research center and teaching at the California Institute of Technology, Wolfram founded the company that developed the software package Mathematica in 1988.

His lecture, which was part of a 23-stop tour that began last month and his book discuss ideas he has identified over the last 20 years. The basic theme is that while traditional scientific paradigms base complex system behavior on the ability to solve different mathematical equations, nature can actually be based on a simple computer program, according to Wolfram.

Wolfram explained that he began building his intellectual framework by thinking about how structures emerge in the universe, including everything from galaxies to turbulent fluid flows and snowflakes.

His model started with a simple cellular automaton, which is a computer program where one black square or “cell” transforms into a complex and often random pattern by following simple rules. Many seemingly complex or random patterns in nature can actually emerge from one of these rules, Wolfram said.

Using other programs, Wolfram also eventually created theories that deal with the ability for systems, such as the human mind, to decode other systems.

Linking his theories to natural examples of randomness, Wolfram said, “we wouldn’t expect to find entire computer CPUs just lying around in nature.”

This explains why all the randomness in nature must be derived from a simple computer-like program with rules, according to Wolfram. However, since we can never know the consequences of these rules, we can never fathom their infinite complexity or randomness.

Following a number of years without any new publications, Wolfram emerged with A New Kind of Science this past May. The 1,200 page book was previously the best-selling book on Amazon.com.

While many people might be skeptical of Wolfram’s completely new paradigm, his book sold out all 50,000 copies on its first day in print. Wolfram said he was not initially comfortable with his paradigm shift but that the most difficult part of his work was that “[he] kept finding things which contradicted traditionally accepted wisdom.”

However, he, “had to keep working so [he] could connect everything with one explanation.”

Archived article by Aliza Wasserman