Physicist Awarded 'Genius' Prize Finds Reality in Invisible World

Gladwin Hill, The New York Times, Sunday, May 24, 1981.

PASADENA, Calif., May 23—Most people would presumably be elated if someone dropped $128,000 into their laps. Dr. Stephen Wolfram is politely appreciative of the fact that he was so favored, but beyond that he tends to regard the news of the windfall as an intrusion on his consuming preoccupation: trying to figure out how the universe works.

"When they phoned the other day to tell me about the prize, I was going out the door to discuss some ideas at lunch with some of the other people here," he said with a whimsical smile, "so I wasn't all that pleased, really."

Dr. Wolfram, a research associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology here, was among 21 persons in various walks of life named this week as recipients in the new awards program of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago.

$24,000 a Year for 5 Years

The awards are outright gifts with no requirements, made to "exceptionally talented individuals who have given evidence of originality, dedication to creative pursuits and capacity for self-direction," the foundation says. Dr. Wolfram will get $24,000 a year for five years and bonuses under a complicated system based on age. He does not know who nominated him for the prize, but a number of people at Caltech served as advisers to the foundation.

Dr. Wolfram, at the age of 21 the youngest of the recipients, is well on his way to a scientific career. He graduated from Oxford University in England at 17 and got his doctorate here three years later.

Unlike the stereotype of the white-jacketed scientist working with apparatus in a laboratory, Dr. Wolfram spends most of his time in thought and calculations in a plain, 12-foot-square office equipped chiefly with bookshelves, a desk and a computer terminal and read-out printer. The last Caltech annual report lists him among half a dozen professors and other researchers who specialize at the school in a field called quantum chromodynamics.

Life with Quarks and Gluons

He finds it difficult to describe his field of interest much more specifically than to say that it deals with the particles of which matter is composed and the forces that act upon them, things like quarks and gluons and the still-mysterious phenomenon of gravity.

In blue corduroy slacks, open-neck shirt and sandals, he will arrive at his office late in the morning, cogitate until late evening, "grab a sandwich" in his battered red Toyota on the way home to his apartment over a garage a mile from the campus, then spend a good deal of the night working at another computer terminal there.

He seldom reads much except scientific publications and says he "hates" sports but finds diversion mainly in late-night television movies that he watches while the computer is turning out calculations.

Dr. Wolfram's mother teaches philosophy at Oxford. His father, Hugo Wolfram, is a novelist, although Dr. Wolfram says he has "never gotten around" to reading any of the novels. He has a brother, 10 years younger, in school in England.

Couldn't Do Arithmetic

He repeatedly says he is "humiliated" at not being able to solve some of the enigmas of physics that he grapples with.

"When I first went to school, they thought I was behind," he says, "because I didn't want to read the silly books they gave us. And I never was able to do arithmetic."

It was when he got into higher mathematics, such as calculus, he says, that he realized there was an invisible world that he wanted to explore.

He says he has no idea what he will do with the prize money.