tonight i went to see stephen wolfram speak at the san francisco city arts and lectures series. i went not out of rabid fandom, but rather because i wanted to assess whether or not this guy is a crackpot.
for those unfamiliar with dr. wolfram, he is best known as the creator of mathematica, a highly regarded piece of mathematical software, used primarily by scientists. he is also a theoretical physicist of some repute who has garnered recent attention by writing a book with the presumptuous title a new kind of science.
you can see why one might be dubious about the mental faculties of someone who claims to have created a new kind of science.
so, crackpot or genius?
caveat emptor: the following scientific rant will not be of general interest and may make me seem like your typical scientific pedant (see, there, i’m doing it already). feel free to continue browsing elsewhere if techno-jargon makes you feel light-headed or otherwise ill or disgusted.
first, let me say that dr. wolfram is not, on the surface of things, a crackpot. he doesn’t claim to be the next isaac newton, or that einstein was a bozo. there are plenty of folks out there who fall into this category, and wolfram is not one of them. he is extremely erudite, and seemingly knowledgeable about, well, just about everything…
during the course of the evening, he held forth about mathematics, physics, biology, darwinism, free will, the shape of snowflakes, and the colorful patterns on mollusk sheels. he also managed to get off a few good jokes, something most scientists only dream of (unless they’re dreaming about things like quantum gravity and the fundamental beauty of abelian groups, which they usually are).
however, this humble writer believes it a bit bold to say that a “new” kind of science is being proposed by dr. wolfram. a few of his major ideas seem to have come up before:
- computational irreducability: hmmm…haven’t read the book, but it seems like godel’s incompleteness theorems (ca. 1931) covered a lot of this territory. funny, but someone asked a question about this after the talk…wolfram has clearly thought and written about the connections, so he knows this idea isn’t necessarily new.
- complexity from simplicity: anyone who has done any computational modeling would tell you that simple models can yield complex results (cf. n-dimensional ising models, chaos theory, to name a few realms of study). nothing new there.
- deep insights from cellular automata: i think john von neumann had a pretty good handle on this, or at least a big start, back in the 60s. no doubt wolfram has extended knowledge here greatly, but the fundamental ideas are not new.
it appears that dr. wolfram is watering numerous seeds planted by others, which any great scientist will inevitably do. however, to pass the results of one’s endeavor off as “new” science smacks of tremendous hubris in my book…maybe i’m just quibbling about semantics, though.
at any rate, he may be on to something. now i just have to set aside a few months to read the nice, terse 1200-page monograph he has written on the subject. donations of coffee and no-doze are welcome.
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