Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2002/06/07/author_of_mathematica_proposes/

Author of Mathematica proposes a new basis for science

Wolfram's Big Claim

By IT-Analysis

Posted in Software, 7th June 2002 11:21 GMT

You may not know of Stephen Wolfram — or if you do you may only know of him as the author of Mathematica, the dominant software product in the field of mathematics.

Stephen Wolfram was born in the UK, educated at Eton, Oxford, and Caltech — from which he received a Ph.D. in theoretical physics at the age of 20. Following a career in academia, Wolfram started Wolfram Research, Inc. developing Mathematica and releasing it in 1988. It quickly grew to be the dominant product in its field and is now in version 4 and still selling widely.

However, it seems that for Wolfram, Mathematica was not his dominant interest. He has been working for years on the behaviour of cellular automata — patterns that are formed by the application of a simple set of rules similar to John Conway's Game of Life and has now produced a weighty book under the title "A New Kind of Science" (just published) which proposes that the behaviour of cellular automata provide a better basis for science than, well, anything else including mathematics itself.

It is an outrageous claim — although not necessarily wrong — indeed it will be difficult to comment on its accuracy until quite a few of his peers have examined what he is saying. But for the record, Wolfram claims that his work has direct and fundamental relevance to just about every field of science from nuclear physics and astrophysics through to biology, perception and philosophy — and he expects that all of these fields will be revolutionised by his work. If he wasn't a gifted academic, he would be dismissed as a crank — but he has earned the right to be taken seriously.

The book is already a best seller in the US and the UK — the initial printing of about 50,000 copies being sold out on the basis of advanced orders. However, A New Kind of Science is not just a book, it is also a web site (as quite a few books are nowadays) and a set of software programs which can be downloaded over the net and which demonstrate the points he is making. There is also a new software product "A New Kind Of Science Explorer" which allows you to conduct experiments of your own.

Irrespective of whether Wolfram is right, wrong or somewhere in between, his book and the associated software are going to make him a lot richer than he already is. He has chosen to publish the book himself rather than go through the usual channels and he has managed to create the kind of hype that publisher's dream of, but rarely achieve. The academic world has had its nose pushed out of joint because Wolfram has not followed the traditional path of progressively publishing papers and exposing them to peer review, he has kept everything secret until recently and then published to the world.

Consequently it is too early for considered criticism or support to have emerged.

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