Sunday, January 15, 2017

Stephen Wolfram's Unique Mind

Stephen Wolfram (born 29 August 1959) is a British-born American computer scientist, physicist, and businessman. He is known for his work in computer science, mathematics, and in theoretical physics. He is the author of the book A New Kind of Science. In 2012 he was named an inaugural fellow of the American Mathematical Society.

As a businessman, he is the founder and CEO of the software company Wolfram Research where he worked as chief designer of Mathematica and the Wolfram Alpha answer engine. His recent work has been on knowledge-based programming, expanding and refining the programming language of Mathematica into what is now called the Wolfram Language. His book An Elementary Introduction to the Wolfram Language appeared in 2015 and Idea Makers appeared in 2016.

As a young child, Wolfram initially struggled in school and had difficulties learning arithmetic. At the age of 12, he wrote a dictionary on physics. By 13 or 14, he had written three books on particle physics. They were not published.

Wolfram Was a Prodigy

Wolfram was a wunderkind. By age 15, he began research in applied quantum field theory and particle physics and published scientific papers. Topics included matter creation and annihilation, the fundamental interactions, elementary particles and their currents, hadronic and leptonic physics, and the parton model, published in professional peer-reviewed scientific journals including Nuclear Physics B, Australian Journal of Physics, Nuovo Cimento, and Physical Review D. Working independently, Wolfram published a widely cited paper on heavy quark production at age 18 and nine other papers, and continued research and to publish on particle physics into his early twenties. Wolfram's work with Geoffrey C. Fox on the theory of the strong interaction is still used in experimental particle physics.

He was educated at Eton College, but left prematurely in 1976. He entered St. John's College, Oxford at age 17 but found lectures "awful", and left in 1978 without graduating to attend the California Institute of Technology, the following year, where he received a PhD in particle physics on November 19, 1979 at age 20. Wolfram's thesis committee was composed of Richard Feynman, Peter Goldreich, Frank J. Sciulli and Steven Frautschi, and chaired by Richard D. Field.

A 1981 letter from Feynman to Gerald Freund giving reference for Wolfram for the MacArthur grant appears in Feynman's collective letters, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track. Following his PhD, Wolfram joined the faculty at Caltech and became the youngest recipient of the MacArthur Fellowships in 1981, at age 21

Career as a PhD

Complex systems and cellular automata

In 1983, Wolfram left for the School of Natural Sciences of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he conducted research into cellular automata, mainly with computer simulations. He produced a series of papers systematically investigating the class of elementary cellular automata, conceiving the Wolfram code, a naming system for one-dimensional cellular automata, and a classification scheme for the complexity of their behaviour. He conjectured that the Rule 110 cellular automaton might be Turing complete.

A 1985 letter, from Feynman to Wolfram, also appears in Feynman's letters. In it, in response to Wolfram writing to him that he was thinking about creating some kind of institute where he might study complex systems, Feynman tells Wolfram, "You do not understand ordinary people," and advises him "find a way to do your research with as little contact with non-technical people as possible."

In the mid-1980s, Wolfram worked on simulations of physical processes (such as turbulent fluid flow) with cellular automata on the Connection Machine alongside Richard Feynman and helped initiate the field of complex systems, founding the first institute devoted to this subject, The Center for Complex Systems Research (CCSR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and the journal Complex Systems in 1987.

Symbolic Manipulation Program

Wolfram led the development of the computer algebra system SMP (Symbolic Manipulation Program) in the Caltech physics department during 1979–1981. A dispute with the administration over the intellectual property rights regarding SMP—patents, copyright, and faculty involvement in commercial ventures—eventually caused him to resign from Caltech. SMP was further developed and marketed commercially by Inference Corp. of Los Angeles during 1983–1988.


In 1986 Wolfram left the Institute for Advanced Study for the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign where he founded their Center for Complex Systems Research and started to develop the computer algebra system Mathematica, which was first released in 1988, when he left academia. In 1987 he founded a company called Wolfram Research which continues to develop and market the program.

Near the end of Sybil Wolfram's life, as part of her research for In-laws and Outlaws, she used her son's program Mathematica to analyze her data.

Wolfram's younger brother, Conrad Wolfram, serves as CEO of Wolfram Research Europe, Ltd.

A New Kind of Science

From 1992 to 2002, he worked on his controversial book A New Kind of Science, which presents an empirical study of very simple computational systems. Additionally, it argues that for fundamental reasons these types of systems, rather than traditional mathematics, are needed to model and understand complexity in nature. Wolfram's             conclusion is that the universe is digital in its nature, and runs on fundamental laws which can be described as simple programs. He predicts that a realisation of this within the scientific communities will have a major and revolutionary influence on physics, chemistry and biology and the majority of the scientific areas in general, which is the reason for the book's title.  [Charlie Rose interviewed Wolfram shortly after A New Kind of Science was published in 2002.  The 27 minute interview is online at].

Since the release of the book in 2002, Wolfram has split his time between developing Mathematica and encouraging people to get involved with the subject matter of A New Kind of Science by giving talks, holding conferences, and starting a summer school devoted to the topic.
                                                    StephenWolfram in 2008

Wolfram Alpha computational knowledge engine

In March 2009, Wolfram announced Wolfram|Alpha, an answer engine. Wolfram|Alpha later launched in May 2009, and a paid-for version with extra features launched on February 2012. The engine is based on natural language processing and a large library of algorithms, and answers queries using the approach described in A New Kind of Science. The application programming interface allows other applications to extend and enhance Alpha. Wolfram believes that as Wolfram Alpha comes into common use, "It will raise the level of scientific things that the average person can do."

Wolfram|Alpha is one of the answer engines behind Microsoft's Bing and Apple's Siri answering factual questions.

Wolfram Language

In June 2014, Wolfram officially announced the Wolfram Language as a new general multi-paradigm programming language. The documentation for the language was pre-released in October 2013 to coincide with the bundling of Mathematica and the Wolfram Language on every Raspberry Pi computer. While the Wolfram Language has existed for over 25 years as the primary programming language used in Mathematica, it was not officially named until 2014. Wolfram's son, Christopher Wolfram, appeared on the program of SXSW giving a live-coding demonstration using Wolfram Language and has blogged about Wolfram Language for Wolfram Research.

On 8 December 2015, Wolfram published the book "An Elementary Introduction to the Wolfram Language" to introduce people with no knowledge of programming to the Wolfram Language and the kind of computational thinking it allows.

Both Stephen Wolfram and Christopher Wolfram were involved in helping create the alien language for the film Arrival, for which they used the Wolfram Language.

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See also this interview published on June 1, 2002, just before Wolfram's book was published:

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