Member # 1
posted 17. May 2002 10:16
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2002.
Is this man bigger than Newton and Darwin?
British physicist Stephen Wolfram tells Graham Farmelo why his new book, already number one on Amazon.com, will revolutionise science.
I have had some unusual meetings with scientists in my time, but never one like this. Here I am in a Boston restaurant with an accomplished physicist who matter-of-factly assures me that his new book will revolutionise science. Not just parts of science, but everything from the theory of evolution to the very nature of space and time. Industry will be different, too, he claims: "In 50 years' time, more new technology will be based on this new kind of science than on conventional science."
My dining companion is Stephen Wolfram, physicist extraordinaire. I first met him at the California Institute of Technology in 1979, when he was a 20-year-old researcher, just beginning to focus his formidable creative energy on understanding new computer programs that were trying to take the pain out of mathematical problem-solving. His brilliance and determination were awesome - everyone knew he was going places. But where to? Would he mature into a great scientist or into another of those sad wunderkinder, remembered less for their achievements than their unfulfilled potential?
In 1988, he released his Mathematica software, having set up his own company to develop and sell it to scientists and engineers. More than two million of them now use it as an indispensable tool for solving mathematical problems. For the past 11 years, he has continued to be his company's hands-on chief executive while privately pursuing a research programme. He has controversially chosen not take the usual route of writing up his work in papers submitted to fellow academics for peer review, but to publish it himself in a 1,197-page tome, A New Kind of Science, written for a lay audience as well as for scientists. It reached the bookstores yesterday in Britain and - amid a long-planned welter of publicity - in the United States.
When I met with Wolfram, now a portly 42-year-old, his magnum opus was safely at the printers. He was relaxed and chatty, looking forward to its publication. Genial but intense, he has the presence of a senior actor, articulating his words with a McKellenesque clarity, looking professorially over the top of his spectacles with eyes sparkling, like one of those good-natured buffers played so delightfully by Jim Broadbent. The only outward sign of Wolfram's solitude is a stoop, no doubt the consequence of sitting for thousands of hours at his computer as he wrote his book, making more than 100 million keystrokes and pushing his computer mouse further than 100 miles.
What, then, is his big new idea? He believes he has discovered that much of the universe can be understood in terms of simple programs - similar to, but far simpler than, those run by computers - rather than by means of traditional mathematical equations. "The Pythagoreans had this idea - all is number. This was a pretty good idea; it spawned mathematics," he says, sipping his favourite drink, a 50:50 mixture of pineapple juice and Seven Up. "My comparable idea is that all is computation. You can use computation as a unifying thread to study all kinds of questions about natural systems."
Sure enough, it is hard to find a single equation in the 846 pages of the main text of A New Kind of Science. The book is, however, teeming with beautiful images that illustrate the results of programs generated by rules so simple that a child could understand them. Nature, Wolfram says, uses simple programs like these in ways that have not been captured by traditional science.
He maintains that nature uses such programs to generate the patterns on seashells and the shapes of leaves. The book features illustrations that look like ones we see in the natural world, such as the chervil garnish on my baked salmon. Although Wolfram does not claim to have accounted precisely for all of these patterns, he is confident that he has found their underlying mechanism and this will give others the keys to producing models of such natural systems that could not have been achieved before.
With consummate self-assurance, he asserts that his ideas form the basis of the first truly predictive theory of biology - one that enables us to foresee the shapes of natural bodies, rather than to have to settle for explaining them in retrospect. Equipped with these insights, technology will be able to think about building devices that can mimic biological systems as complex as the human eye. How's that for ambitious futurology?
Biologists argue that the complex patterns found in living things - their shape and their markings - are simply the result of evolution by natural selection. But Wolfram reckons that too much weight has been put on this idea, because "no one knows how such complicated stuff emerged out of evolution". His answer is that nature uses simple computer programs easily to produce complex patterns and shapes of organisms, and then may use natural selection to choose the ones that confer the ability to survive in their environments. "I've come to have some sympathy with creationists," he comments as he cuts up his steak. "Natural selection isn't everything, after all."
Wolfram also has things to say about space and time and, between sips of his drink, outlines his progress towards an ultimate theory of the universe. He believes that space is not continuous, as most of us perceive it to be, but is fundamentally a network of discrete but connected parts. Time, he suggests, emerges from an underlying process that makes it quite different from space. These ideas will, he assures me, lead to testable predictions when a more developed theory is ready.
To produce that theory, we shall have to rethink our fundamental theories such as Einstein's general theory of relativity, his theory of space, time and matter. Einstein developed this glorious theory over four years, following the usual path of keeping colleagues informed of his progress and then submitting his final paper in 1915 for assessment by referees. Why hasn't Wolfram taken this route, accepted by scientists all over the world as part of their unwritten credo?
The problem was, Wolfram declaims, that his theory is more revolutionary than Einstein's. Although climactic work on general relativity was "a great achievement and a nice paper", the ideas fitted into an existing framework. Wolfram believes his work is so new that it is best to publish it in one book so that people can see it in the round, rather than being released in dribs and drabs. He learnt this, he said, after following the conventional academic process in the Eighties, when he published numerous articles in scientific journals. But he says that he quickly came to see that to take the huge steps away from orthodoxy that he thought were needed, he would have to embark on it by himself.
Wolfram points out that he consulted hundreds of leaders in science and technology in preparing A New Kind of Science and has worked continually with loyal assistants. Not having had to implement awkward comments from editors and referees before the paper could be accepted for publication, he alone has decided every detail of the book's contents. As I listen to Wolfram chatting, it occurs to me that he has been the project's ultra-controlling, hard-driving chief executive, just as he is at his successful company, which he seems to run as a benign dictator.
Is he nervous of the reception given to his work? Not a bit. "Look, I'm a practical man," he says and smiles. A book like this is bound to attract extreme views, he remarks equably - only time will tell what's right. "If other people don't get it, it's their problem, not mine."
Graham Farmelo, of the Science Museum, has edited It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science (Granta).
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2002.