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.

0

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## A New Kind of Science

Stephen Wolfram

posted on 28 May 2002

reviewed by Thomas Martin

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