New Science/Innovations: Science Digest Profile on Stephen Wolfram

Steven Oppenheimer, Science Digest 92 (June 1984) 85. Stephen Wolfram tries to unravel the mystery of how order emerges from chaos.

Even geniuses have bad days. After several minutes of futile tapping on an unresponsive keyboard, physicist Stephen Wolfram mutters, "Blast, this is really frustrating."

Despite the momentary preoccupation with his badly behaved computer, Wolfram has more important things on his mind. This casual scientist is, in fact, the youngest member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Three years ago, at the age of 21, Wolfram was the youngest person to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, a no-strings-attached grant of $125,000. And recently, at the age of 23, he received a long-term appointment to the Institute. All this for a fellow who skipped a good deal of high school and college.

Yet Wolfram scoffs at the idea that he is a genius. "This giving of labels," he notes, "is inevitable, but rather unfortunate." What’s more, he credits his accomplishments not to following rules and regulations but to a "style" of creative and intellectual independence. "I don’t have the greatest respect for the standard educational system," he says, shifting his slightly stout frame in the chair. "My teachers at school always told me I was no good at doing math."

Wolfram didn’t pay attention to those comments. While attending secondary school in England, he began teaching himself physics at the age of 12. At 15, he published his first scientific papers on theoretical physics. Later, while pursuing his doctorate at the California Institute of Technology, he avoided professors anxious to be his mentors. "You can learn a hell of a lot quicker from books than from listening to a person talk," he says.

The range of his curiosity is also evident in his decision to change fields every few years. "That’s the way I keep myself interested," he explains. "People always find it necessary to classify one. I prefer not to be classified." And what exactly are the fields that he has pursued? Oh, everything from cosmology to particle physics to cellular automata. Cellular what?

In nature, Wolfram explains, there are many complicated systems that physics and biology break down into simple parts: Cells, molecules, atoms. But it is a great unsolved mystery how raw, chaotic bits of matter combine to form complex structures—everything from snowflakes to human beings.

To find out how chaos becomes order, Wolfram has constructed his own computer-generated ordering process that mimics what happens in nature. It takes disordered data and, using a single rule for each case, builds an orderly system. The system, growing according to the rule, is called a cellular automaton.

Wolfram’s cellular automaton is essentially a glorified checkerboard, with the initial data a series of checkers, red or blue at random, placed on the first row. The rule might be: Fill a space in the second row with a blue checker if the three checkers immediately above it and to its left and right are either all blue or all red. Otherwise, fill the space with red. Like a proud father, Wolfram holds up slides that show how different cellular automata have turned out; there are colorful, orderly zigzag and triangular patterns.

Wolfram reluctantly admits that he is dealing with rather cosmic stuff that is potentially in the same league as quantum mechanics. "It is a very significant and general field," he says. And yet he probably won’t explore any of its applications, like finding out how snowflakes grow or how complexity emerges in living cells. "If somebody else will do it, I don’t want to do it. Life is short. There are so many things one can do."

These days, there are many things begging for Wolfram’s attention. Among his many interests is the Inference Corporation, a company he cofounded to market a new computer language he developed at Caltech called the Symbolic Manipulation Program (SMP). It does a computation in applied mathematics faster than any previous program. SMP’s creation produced a legal conflict with Caltech over who owned the rights.

Was he intimidated by the conflict? "I started doing science very young, and one of the things I quickly learned was how to deal with people who think you are rather naive," Wolfram comments. "When people say silly things, the problem is to understand why they are saying them. One has to learn to deal with all sorts."

Yet Stephen Wolfram doesn’t see himself as different. He chuckles in slight exasperation at the suggestion. "People often assume I must be some kind of bizarre personality. Perhaps I am and I just can’t see it, but I don’t think so. What’s remarkable to me is that more people don’t do what I’ve done. I’ve taken some risks. Most people are not adventurous enough."