Stephen Wolfram Q&A

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Some collected questions and answers by Stephen Wolfram

Questions may be edited for brevity; see links for full questions.

June 1, 1996

From: Interview by Chicago Software Newspaper

You’ve spent a lot of time in business and working in pure science areas. Do you prefer one environment to the other or have any observations on the two worlds?

There is science, and then there is academia. When I was a professor I used to say that business was my hobby and being a professor was what I made money at. Now I say that if one wants to do basic research and you have no other choice—go be a professor. But if you have a choice, don’t be! In the 10 years since I left academia it has decayed even further than when I was there. That whole university world has expanded and increased its mass of mediocrity. Similarly, its repute has gone down. I remember that it used to be common here in the US to address people with a PhD as “doctor”. That happens very rarely now because most people have lost their esteem for academics.

The problem is that universities have no clear-cut goal. If you are a professor, what is your point—simply to be a professor? In business I have found that it is the opposite. In the academic world people may have good ideas but most of them, at best, end up in the form of a paper published in an obscure journal with a circulation of 500. In business, on the other hand, you can take those ideas and move them forward rather than just putting them out in the ether…. You can take them to the market and explain them to people.

People in academia view business as nonintellectual. They are wrong. It is an intellectual activity where you use a broader kind of intelligence. For me, I end up using a lot of different kinds of thinking combining the intellectual with exercises in figuring out what the point of the activity is. In fact, many academics have tremendous troubles making the transition to business. They think they should focus just on the technical issue and not have to engage themselves seriously with other kinds of thinking, say figuring out how to motivate someone to buy something.

For me, what I like about business is that you can think about a whole variety of things. And in my business if I have an idea I have lots of leverage for turning it into a reality. I have a great team of people and they too come up with lots of ideas. We can make things happen. It isn’t like hoping some unpaid graduate students will do you a favor. These are people who want to make a career of making things happen!

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