If You Want to Know Why Markets Crash and Dalmatians Have Spots, Then Ask a Computer

Roger Highfield, Esquire (UK) (February 1994) 20.

Stephen Wolfram has an intimidating CV. He published his first paper on particle physics while at Eton, studied for a year at Oxford (even final year lectures were "all too horrible", he declared), and received a doctorate at the California Institute of Technology, aged 20. Following a sojourn in Einstein’s final intellectual resting place—the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton—he was, at 27, offered a professorship, funding and a specially created department at the University of Illinois to pursue his interest in complexity—the trendy effort to understand the complicated features of the world about us, from the spots on a leopard to a crash in the stock exchange.

To speed his mathematical research, Wolfram developed Mathematica, a revolutionary computer program. He set up Wolfram Research in 1987 to market the software and since then, his company has blossomed into a multi-million dollar enterprise that has enabled one million researchers in over 90 countries to use Mathematica. The software can express calculations in a flexible computer programming language so they can be solved, manipulated, displayed as a graph and even played over a loudspeaker.

Stephen Wolfram’s work on complexity continues unabated and has led him to believe that the effort to reduce the workings of the cosmos to a mathematical “Theory of Everything”—one pursued by eminent scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Einstein—may be fundamentally flawed.

Contemporary attempts to write science’s Book of Genesis focus on uniting the four known fundamental forces into one all-encompassing mathematical theory, combining the inner space of sub-atomic particles with the outer space of the cosmos. But Wolfram believes that if he is successful in his bid to use computers to provide an ultimate explanation of everything under and beyond the stars, mathematics will soon become little more than an aesthetic pursuit akin to art.

Mathematica has convinced Wolfram why the traditional mathematical approach has been brilliant at describing atoms or galaxies, but a failure when it comes to the messy bits in between. "There are lots of obvious features of the natural world that traditional science has done a crummy job of explaining," Wolfram maintains.

The use of mathematical equations to describe the behaviour of the real world breaks down in the simplest circumstances—for instance, it is impossible to solve the equations that describe how two planets orbit the sun or the turbulent flow of a liquid. But planetary motions can be reproduced by running the laws of gravity in a computer and the collective flow of trillions of water molecules can be mimicked if a computer applies a few basic rules to myriad sample units.

The latter, dubbed "cellular automata", have been studied for more than half a century, but in 1982, Wolfram rekindled interest (ruffling the feathers of established practitioners in the field) by classifying automata into various menageries and using automata to simulate complex phenomena, ranging from the growth of snowflakes and patterns on molluscs. "What I am trying to do is to rebuild science on such simple computer programs, rather than use traditional mathematics," says Wolfram.

Too bad that Wolfram has no plans to return to Britain. But not only is the US awash with opportunities in terms of lectureships and dollars, Wolfram, now aged 33, would feel out of place in Britain’s scientific establishment, which is dominated by old men.

Go to a Royal Society soirèe and you will be struck by the numbers of grey beards, perhaps even more by the speed with which they clear the place of wine and canapès. Clearly, no one is earning very much, and this is the crème de la crème of British science, which includes a smattering of Nobel laureates.

The best science is done by the young. When Einstein reached the peak of his powers, he was a well-built, arrogant 26-year-old, not the buffoon who stuck his tongue out at the cameras. There are plenty more Wolframs out there in British universities. Until the country offers sufficient funding, prospects and prestige, we risk losing them too.