Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Stephen Wolfram wants to rebuild science on a foundation of cellular automata:

Mr. Wolfram spins out elaborate speculations based on these ideas --- suggestions about free will, the structure of space, the nature of mathematics. "There is so much in the book," [computational neuroscientist Terry] Sejnowski said, "that it will be years, literally years, before people assimilate it." Meanwhile, reactions to Mr. Wolfram, he believes, will be "all over the map."

Mr. Wolfram is sanguine: "I am quite certain this is going to work. I have never deluded myself before."

Wolfram is an authentic genius --- one of those rare folks that even top-flight mathematicians and theoretical physicists refer to as "state of the art in human intelligence". He graduated from CalTech at the age of 20. With a Ph.D. The year after that, he won a MacArthur genius award. So, if anyone can create a useful new kind of mathematics, which is what this project seems to amount to, near as I can tell from this blurb in the Times, well, he's one of the few.

But when geniuses get wrapped up in their own private, secret projects, they don't always succeed. Newton, perhaps the greatest theoretical physicist in the history of the human species, carried one off to tremendous success with his Principia Mathematica, whose laws of motion provided the basis for a few hundred years' worth of subsequent work. But another grand project, which consumed much of his life, and may well have shortened it, was work in alchemy, which for all Newton's brilliance, got him absolutely nowhere.


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