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A New Kind of Science

Stephen Wolfram

posted on 28 May 2002

reviewed by Thomas Martin

If a million scientists worked on a million experiments for three
hundred years, would they learn as much about the universe as Stephen
Wolfram does by sitting at his computer for twenty years?


Apparently not, according to Stephen Wolfram.


I'm annoyed with Wolfram for forcing me to poke fun at him like this.
I've been waiting for this book a long time, and I genuinely wanted to
give it a thumbs up. Unfortunately, Wolfram has made that impossible.


I gave the book three stars, but in fact I consider it almost
un-ratable. What do you do with a 1200-page tome that contains a wealth
of substantive and fascinating results, but which is insists, at every
turn, to draw over-blown and under-supported conclusions from them? I
split the difference and gave it a middling rating, but that does not
convey the deep ambivalence I feel toward this work.


Given Wolfram's reputation, I expected a certain amount of hubris, and
even looked forward to it. Most scientists work hard to suppress the
egotism that drives them, but Wolfram's ego is out there in the open.
While this can be refreshing, what I found here left me dumbfounded.
For
Wolfram, all of scientific history is either prelude or footnote to his
own work on 1-D cellular automata. On pages 12-16 he breezily sites
other work in chaos theory, non-linear dynamics and complexity theory.
At the end of the book, there are hundreds of pages of footnotes
describing previous history as essentially one damn thing after another
- a testament to all the people that didn't see the promised land, as
he
has.


Wolfram attempts to usurp all credit for the "computational
perspective." Assertions such as "the discoveries in this book showing
that simple rules can lead to complex behavior" are repeated to the
point of exhaustion. But his attempt to shock us falls flat: if that
idea was ever radical, it surely would not be considered so today. The
other fields that Wolfram casually dismisses have provided strong
indications of the power of this principle, as well as the idea that
many diverse systems are computationally equivalent. An entire
generation of physicists has grown up quite accustom to these notions.


Wolfram did make very substantial and important contributions to the
study of complex systems in the early eighties. But he was not the only
one, and those studies have not induced a wholesale revision of
science.
Despite what he would have us believe, the general concepts he espouses
are not that radical. It would probably be more accurate to call them
expressions of the modern scientific zeitgeist.


Meanwhile, some of Wolfram's specific claims are indeed very novel, but
only because they are breathtakingly arrogant. Consider his comments on
two famous scientific principles: The second law of thermodynamics, and
evolution by means of natural selection. Both these principles date
from
the mid-nineteenth century. Both have incited considerable controversy,
and both have withstood mountains of empirical observations from
diverse
sources. Wolfram, however, calls both of them into question. Why?
Because he has done 1-D cellular automations simulations on his
computer
that he feels make them suspicious. How does Wolfram expect to be taken
seriously when he makes such assertions almost non-chalantly?


Wolfram lacks any hint of balance in assessing the true place of his
results. He admits to having been a recluse for years, and it shows.
The
desire to free oneself of the mainstream community, to allow oneself to
be more creative, is understandable and healthy. But one concomitantly
loses the critical faculty that derives from being part of a dynamic
community. Though Wolfram will likely never see it, what he lost by
pulling away from the world has substantially outweighed what he
gained.
Consequently, his loss has become ours. We did not get the much
shorter,
but wiser, book that lurks somewhere inside this one.