PORTRAIT

The algorithm of the Gods

Stephen Wolfram “Explaining an idea, then polishing it to make it as clear as possible, is an excellent path to better understanding.” © Stephen Faust/Wolfram Research.Inc.
Stephen Wolfram “Explaining an idea, then polishing it to make it as clear as possible, is an excellent path to better understanding.”
© Stephen Faust/Wolfram Research.Inc.
Coloured images based on Rule 30, taken from Stephen Wolfram’s bestseller, A New Kind of Science.

Coloured images based on Rule 30, taken from Stephen Wolfram’s bestseller, A New Kind of Science.

Coloured images based on Rule 30, taken from Stephen Wolfram’s bestseller, A New Kind of Science.

Coloured images based on Rule 30, taken from Stephen Wolfram’s bestseller, A New Kind of Science.
Coloured images based on Rule 30, taken from Stephen Wolfram’s bestseller, A New Kind of Science.

Does the world function like a computer programme? Are the forms and states of nature created from a basic formula? Stephen Wolfram thinks so, and even claims to have discovered the source code underpinning the complexity of the universe.

By day, 50-year-old Wolfram is the head of a company called Wolfram Research, which owns the wellknown calculation software Mathematica and the new search engine Wolfram Alpha. By night, he is a researcher, a brilliant scientist with a reputation second to none. Mathematician, computer scientist and particle physicist, his research focuses on cellular automata, mathematical models that, according to Stephen Wolfram, explain how the complexity of the world is constructed. In his book A New Kind of Science published in 2001, Wolfram challenges the very foundations of science in all its fields. So, is he an arrogant megalomaniac or a misunderstood genius?

Prodigal son

Stephen Wolfram was born in London in 1959. At a very early age he showed signs of remarkable intelligence. At the age of 13 he was granted a study bursary for Eton College, a prestigious secondary school where he rubbed shoulders with the cream of the British elite. One year later, Wolfram wrote an essay on particle physics. His first scientific article appeared in Nuclear Physics in 1975, when he was only 15 years old. “At that time physics was one of the most innovative fields of research. Many advances were made, especially in particle physics, which attracted me”, he explains(1).

The young genius pursued his career at Oxford University (UK) before crossing the Atlantic to work at the California Institute of Technology – Caltech (US), where he gained a doctorate in theoretical physics at the age of 20. It was here that he began to forge his reputation. During this period he published more than 25 scientific articles. He dreamed up the Fox-Wolfram variables and discovered the Politzer-Wolfram upper bound on the mass of quarks. In 1981, at the ripe old age of 22, he became the youngest ever winner of the MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellowship, which offers a bursary to the most talented researchers each year.

Wolfram left Caltech in 1982 for the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (US), an establishment devoted exclusively to scientific research. It was here that cellular automata first attracted his interest. His goal was to understand the complexity of the world, a question that no mathematical equation or physical theory had ever succeeded in resolving. The origin of the complexity of the Universe is a subject that had fascinated him since childhood. “This question arose not only when I was studying cosmology, but also neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Although I was working on the development of what later became the Mathematica software and creating primitive operations on which to construct a whole series of more complex operations, I had an intuition that there was a similar general principle on which the full complexity of nature was based, from the structure of the galaxies down to that of neurons. For this reason I set out to test very simple operations that could lead to the formation of complex structures, which attracted me to cellular automata.”

So what exactly is a cellular automaton? Take a series of black and white cells. Then imagine that a new row is generated according to a series of rudimentary rules. For example, a white cell can never be above another white cell unless it forms a diagonal of 10 white cells. The matrix resulting from this process randomly produces structures that can be extremely complex.

Businessman

During the 1980s Wolfram discovered Rule 30, a cellular automaton that can generate forms similar to the patterns found on the shell of a snail, Conus textile. This convinced him that he had lifted a corner of the veil of the universal code that he thought must exist.

This prompted him to publish a series of articles on the topic and to create a new discipline, the science of complex systems. He founded the Center for Complex Systems Research at the University of Illinois (US), helped to set up a think tank at the Santa Fe Institute (US) and created the scientific review entitled Complex Systems Journal. “By putting these different elements in place, I hoped to encourage other researchers to follow this avenue of research. But the response from the scientific community was too slow to satisfy my curiosity.”

The frustrated Wolfram left the academic world to devote himself fully to computer programming. “The aim was to build research infrastructure and a tool that would allow me to continue my work on complex systems alone.” In 1987, Wolfram founded the firm Wolfram Research. One year later he brought to market the Mathematica software, which was capable of carrying out a wide range of mathematical operations.

The company was a huge success. Today Mathematica has more than two million users in 90 countries, Wolfram Research generates annual turnover of USD 50 million and has more than 300 employees on its payroll. In changing hats from researcher to businessman, Stephen Wolfram became a millionaire. Initially this was poorly received by the academic world. “Twenty years ago the software used in laboratories was free. It was therefore seen as deeply shocking to ask for money for an application used for advanced R&D, an activity largely confined to universities. Nowadays attitudes have changed radically.”

Hacker of the universal code?

During the 1990s the world of research forgot about Stephen Wolfram, but he had not given up on his research. At night he shut himself up in his laboratory to pursue his research into complex systems. Armed with a computer, he tirelessly tested different cellular automata in order to identify those that best reproduced the structures found in nature. This led to the discovery of cellular automata capable of generating the structure of ice and of certain leaves. Ten years later he published A New Kind of Science, in which he describes his research results and then, chapter by chapter, demonstrates to what extent his theory challenges the bases of the various scientific disciplines.

He deliberately chose not to follow the traditional path of publishing his theory in a scientific review. “I wanted my research to be accessible to the widest possible audience. This approach also allowed me to test my theory. Explaining an idea, then polishing it to make it as clear as possible, is an excellent path to better understanding.”

After applying his efforts to computer modelling of mathematics and the world, Wolfram took on the sphere of knowledge. In 2009, he launched Wolfram Alpha, a search engine capable of providing all the information concerning a given subject in response to a written request. “It has always been important for me not to hide the fundamental research questions raised during the development of a technology; in other words to adopt an integrated approach. Wolfram Alpha is a project that is particularly close to my heart precisely because it reflects this integrated vision of knowledge.”

As a businessman and researcher, the two hats he wears make Wolfram both fascinating and disconcerting. “Most people with the financial resources fund research indirectly, through a foundation for example. Some people are frightened at the idea of financing fundamental research while at the same time contributing personally… although they are unable to say why!”

Julie Van Rossom

  1. All quotes are from Stephen Wolfram.

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