A Challenging View of the Universe—Scientist's Tome Draws Notice, Critics

Gareth Cook, The Boston Globe, June 19, 2002

No one doubts that Stephen Wolfram is one of the brightest minds of his generation. He published his first paper on theoretical physics at age 15, earned his PhD at the California Institute of Technology at 20, and went on to amass millions of dollars with a software program used by scientists around the world.

But now Wolfram, still an enfant terrible at 42, is making his bid for intellectual immortality with a book, A New Kind of Science. The 1,200-plus page tome, an unexpected bestseller that challenges basic premises of modern science, is creating an enormous buzz in publishing circles. But it is also generating a backlash among scientists who say he has moved from arrogance to self-delusion in presenting other people's ideas as his own.

Out for only a few weeks, the book has sold more than 100,000 copies, about half of that on back order as the printers try to catch up with demand, Wolfram says. It has reached the Amazon.com top 10, despite a hefty $44.95 price tag, and despite the fact Wolfram published the book himself.

Yet to Wolfram, who spent the afternoon with a Globe reporter on condition the location of his west-of-Boston house remain secret, these are just the first days of the revolution. For more than a decade, he has been a recluse, working nights in a sound-proofed room to create this manifesto: a volume rich with jagged, mesmerizing computer patterns, laying out a scientific vision he says will change the world.

"I have tried to squash into a decade," Wolfram explains while sipping on a pineapple juice and 7-Up, "what might have taken others 50 years to produce."

Scientists have relied too much on equations, Wolfram explains, making it impossible for them to fully understand complex phenomena such as the structure of a snowflake or the turbulent flows of breaking waves. Opening a drawer, he lifts out a shell to make his point.

The shell's intricate patterns are difficult to describe with a mathematical equation. Yet Wolfram notes a simple computer program can create shell designs easily simply by repeating a pre-programmed pattern, called an algorithm. The rest of the world, he says, can be understood in the same way if scientists look for the kinds of patterns that algorithms make. It's just a matter of discovering which algorithms nature uses.

Just as the book has surprised the publishing world, it has also amazed scientists. While some think it is profound, many say it is profoundly flawed—that these are the writings of a truly brilliant man who so cut himself off from the world that he lost all sense of his true place in it. These critics say that, while he has discovered many things about how computer patterns work, many of his broader claims are either unsupported or old discoveries that he takes credit for.

"The ideas are good ideas, and I am in sympathy with them," said Seth Lloyd, a physicist at MIT. "But most of them were thought of by other people over the last 50 to 100 years."

Yet even some of Wolfram's critics say it is too early to dismiss work that a genius spent more than 10 years creating. Wolfram's book is long, they say, and filled with challenging observations that will take time to work through. And truly revolutionary concepts—gravity, evolution, nuclear weapons—have often been dismissed as bizarre speculation at first.

Wolfram's life has unfolded with furious unpredictability.

Growing up in England, the son of a novelist father and philosopher mother, he published his first scientific paper at 15. By 22, he was given a $128,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, one of the youngest recipients in the prize's history. Then, in quick succession, he moved to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where Einstein once worked, then founded the Center for Complex Systems Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana. And then, still restless, he left to found his own software company in Illinois, creating a program called Mathematica that is now widely used by scientists and mathematicians.

By 1991, though, he wanted to return to the studies of computer-generated patterns he had done a decade before, work he says the scientific community had failed to appreciate.

"In academia," Wolfram says in his gentle British accent, "new things are either wrong or they have been done before—or both."

Since its birth more than three centuries ago, modern science has relied on the language of mathematical equations. For just as long, though, science has been plagued by the problem of complexity: Some things seem to defy description in the language of equations.

For instance, a simple equation can describe how an apple accelerates its descent to earth with time. But how can equations explain the apple's supple curves, its unique splotches, or the cause of the fleeting breeze that loosed it from the branch? How can the bare laws of physics yield a universe so rich and varied?

These are questions that have led many to theology, but for Wolfram they inspired a scientific quest. It was a quest that led him to explorations—staring for hours at random patterns on a computer monitor, for instance—that might be difficult to distinguish from madness.

The initial experiments, begun in the early 1980s, concerned mathematical oddities known as cellular automata, which create patterns following simple repetitive instructions. Most of the time, the patterns unfold with a drab predictability. But using other instructions, the cellular automata become a fury, spitting out unpredictable fireworks of shifting shapes.

In this phenomenon, he reasoned, he might be able to find the basis for the complexity that surrounds us all.

And so, with his software company thriving, he decided to become a kind of monk, holed up in a room at night, when it was quiet, staring into a computer monitor. He was trying, he explains, to develop a new kind of intuition, to understand the patterns he saw on his computer—but he needed isolation.

He developed new work habits. Sometimes, he would convert the patterns he saw into sound and play it on the speakers, listening in the whoosh for a pattern he may have missed visually.

And there were also new social rules for this era: virtually no travel, only the most necessary social contact with friends and colleagues.

"I closed down a lot of intellectual and social interactions I had with people except for pure fact-finding," said Wolfram, who recently moved from Chicago to a sprawling mansion he had built west of Boston.

Despite the isolation, he got married during this period, and he became the father of three young children.

As one year became a few years and then a decade, the piles of paper in his white-walled work room grew and multiplied, and the outside world speculated about the fate of the genius. Even friends warned him that he might not be able to find a way out.

"I had given up thinking he would finish it," said Terrence Sejnowski, a long-time friend who is professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.

But last month, after a "hundred million key strokes" and "100 mouse miles" at the computer, he published a book that is remarkable in several ways. It is a book of science filled with experiments that anyone can do on a computer.

And the book is sprawling, covering everything from the nature of space-time, to the growth patterns of leaves, to the prospect of detecting signals from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

At its core is an exhaustive exploration of cellular automata, and what Wolfram calls the "Principle of Computational Equivalence." All the universe's complexity can be generated, he writes, by the operation of simple algorithms like cellular automata. And everything that appears complex—from the human mind to a tiny whirlpool—is equally simple at its essence.

But many scientists say this appears to be a restatement of the work done by Alan Turing early in the 20th century, showing that a simple machine could do extraordinarily complex calculations. That work has yielded, in the decades since, an array of mind-bending research.

Wolfram dismisses these criticisms—and the charge that his book inflates his own role—as the naysaying of those who have not had the time to appreciate the full scope of his project. ("I am sure if he reads it three more times, that he will understand," Wolfram said of MIT's Lloyd.)

But others predicted scientists would not be so patient. Even understanding what Wolfram has in mind would require scientists to throw out virtually everything they have learned and start anew—a daunting prospect in an area where the conservative is often rewarded.

"Even if Wolfram is correct, and the adoption of his new kind of science could, in fact, lead to an important new understanding of the universe and life in it, I suspect that will not happen," said Keith Devlin, who has known Wolfram for many years and is the executive director of the Center for Study of Language and Information at Stanford University.

"This is not a question of scientific right or wrong. It simply acknowledges the sociology of how science is done."