New Software Creates Models, Not Guesswork

Nick Turner, Investor’s Business Daily, Wednesday, October 30, 1996.

Developers of the first computers didn’t focus on applications like word processing and spreadsheets. They imagined machines that could perform complex math computations.

Today, this kind of technical computing isn’t pressing to most users. But Stephen Wolfram sees that changing.

As chief executive of closely held Wolfram Research, Inc., he developed Mathematica, the most popular technical computing program. His Champaign, Ill.-based firm launched its latest product—Mathematica 3.0—earlier this month.

Wolfram has seen success both as a businessman and as an academic. He earned his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at age 20. And he won a MacArthur Prize Fellowship—a prestigious research grant awarded in a variety of disciplines—when he was 21.

He recently spoke to Investor’s Business Daily about the field of technical computing.

IBD: What’s the market for technical computing?

SW: The kinds of people who need to calculate things span a surprisingly large range. And that range is an ever-increasing one. It started off with scientists and engineers. Now, it includes financial analysts, people in medical research, social sciences and life sciences. A lot of students also use it—from graduate school down to high school.

Technical professionals and students are the core market for Mathematica. There are probably about four million technical professionals in the U.S. Unexpected groups of users also have cropped up. For example, Mathematica can generate fairly spectacular computer graphics. It’s growing in popularity in the computer art and design community.

IBD: What does Mathematica do?

SW: It provides a single system that does all the necessary functions for people who do technical computing. It deals with numbers, formulas and mathematical functions. It also deals with graphics. And it can present technical documents, both online and on paper.

In the past, technical computing was difficult to do because there were just a few specialized tools. In the mid-80’s—culminating with the release of Mathematica in ’88—I tried to make a single integrated environment for doing all of this.

IBD: How have things changed since you first released Mathematica?

SW: A couple of things have happened. The number of people who could potentially have access to a sophisticated software system like Mathematica has vastly increased. That’s because the kind of computers you need to run Mathematica have become completely generic.

Another thing that’s happened…there are more people who are interested in calculating things, rather than just estimating things. Take financial analysis. It used to be the case that if people wanted to come up with the price of something, they would make an estimate based on how excited traders were about that commodity. Now, they perform extensive modeling and calculations about pricing.

IBD: You’ve been working on the third version of Mathematica for the past five years. What changes did you make?

SW: We’ve added technical algorithms for doing all sorts of mathematical calculations. We also allow users to set up a completely programmable user interface.

And online documents (created with the Mathematica software) can contain text, graphics and live Mathematica programs.

IBD: You come from an academic background—with research stints at Caltech, Princeton University and the University of Illinois. How is research different in the business world?

SW: It’s inconceivable that the kinds of things we’ve done with Mathematica could have been done outside of an entrepreneurial business setting. We’ve developed a uniquely efficient research-and-development environment that combines deep intellectual research with the practical need to deliver products.

For me personally, it’s terrific to be able to take my ideas and my work and deliver them to a large number of people around the world. It’s very different than writing a scientific paper. In that case, you’re working mainly in the hope that a few academic colleagues will pay attention.