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SCIENCE IS DEAD! LONG LIVE SCIENCE! SUCH MIGHT be a summary of Stephen Wolfram's much-anticipated book, the boldly titled A New Kind of Science. Rejecting the past four centuries of research as an intellectual dead end, Wolfram proposes to rebuild the foundations from the ground up, along the way resolving such niggling problems as the structure of space and time and the origin of free will. Within the book's 1,280 pages, Wolfram claims to have found the true basis for understanding the evolution of life, the nature of biological complexity, the mechanisms of fluid dynamics (one of the greatest unsolved problems in physics), the behavior of financial markets and the origin of the Second Law of Thermodynamics -- you know, the one that encodes the principle "Things fall apart." About the only thing he doesn't seem to have explained is how to make the perfect cappuccino -- and no doubt he could do that if he put his mind to it one Thursday afternoon.
The modern scientific landscape is littered with self-proclaimed reformers, most of whom are relegated tout de suiteto the "round file," but Wolfram is guaranteed a hearing from science's top echelon. In the past two weeks, his book has received major press attention, from Wiredto The New York Timesto a Newsweekcover story. What sets him apart from the average reformer is his status as a bona fide genius. Publishing his first scientific paper at 15, Wolfram was only 20 when he obtained a Ph.D. from Caltech, where he studied with the legendary Richard Feynman and quickly turned out a series of articles on the foundations of particle physics and cosmology. At 21 he became the youngest person ever to win a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship and, after a stint on the Caltech faculty, moved on to the Institute of Advanced Study, Einstein's old home.
Wolfram has endeared himself to the scientific community in another way too, as the creator of Mathematica, a brilliant mathematical-modeling software package used by scientists and engineers the world over. Mathematica has made Wolfram a rich man, enabling him to eschew academic life and to forge his own idiosyncratic path through the thickets of human ignorance. For almost 20 years he has been working alone on his revolution, refusing to publish until he had the full picture; continually delayed, the work is finally ready for public inspection.
And the public is ready: Pre-release orders put the book on Amazon's top few hundred for much of the past six months -- occasionally cracking the top 50 -- and within a week of its May 14 publication, the entire 50,000 print run had sold out.
The results of Wolfram's efforts are gargantuan in every way: The primary text alone contains 250,000 words, plus another 250,000 words of notes and almost 1,000 illustrations. A hundred million keystrokes were expended on the enterprise, along with "more than a hundred mouse miles." The research generated 10 gigabytes of storage and hundreds of thousands of pages of notebooks, nearly a million lines of Mathematica code and more than a million billion computer operations. Behind these numbers lies an equally dizzying claim, that science in general, and physics in particular, was founded on a delusion.
Perhaps the primary innovation of the scientific revolution was the idea that nature could be described by mathematical equations -- Newton's law of gravity standing as the archetypal example. From the subatomic to the intergalactic, equations are the lingua franca of physics and, increasingly, of many other sciences also. Economics, for one, is becoming virtually a branch of applied mathematics -- John Nash's Nobel was no fluke. So powerful a grip have equations exercised on the scientific imagination, physicists today dream of an "ultimate equation" that would encompass the whole of physical reality. Yet, according to Wolfram, this entire enterprise is fundamentally flawed --equations, he says, can never be the basis for deep insight into nature's workings. In their place he proposes simple computer programs called cellular automata.
Such programs are highly visual -- the output of a cellular automaton looks a bit like a checkerboard on acid. The basic layout is a grid of squares in which the color of each square (just black or white in most of the examples Wolfram considers) is determined by a simple set of rules. One such rule might be that if a square is surrounded by all white squares, then its color should become black, or if the square has a black square above it, then it should become white. The process of studying a cellular automaton involves choosing a particular set of rules, setting up an initial (usually minimal) arrangement for the starting grid, then letting a computer rip. At each "tick" of an internal clock the computer updates the color of every square according to the rules, thus creating a new grid arrangement, which in turn is further updated, and so on ad infinitum -- or until the operator gets bored out of his mind.
This may not sound like a promising setup -- and indeed most scientists assumed nothing interesting could come out of such simple systems -- but in the early 1980s Wolfram made a surprising discovery. He found that even with extremely simple rules, cellular automata could give rise to incredibly complex behavior; over time, sophisticated patterns could emerge, some of which seemed to mimic patterns found in biological systems. Many might have dismissed this as an interesting quirk, but for Wolfram it became a beacon, a sliver of light pointing toward a hitherto unexpected computational continent. He set himself the mission of exploring this land, which to his surprise turned out to be inhabited by a profuse variety of "creatures."