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Thursday, June 20, 2002


SCIENCE is a cumulative, fairly collegial venture. But every so often a maverick, working in self-imposed solitude, bursts forth with a book that aims to set straight the world with a new idea. Some of these grand schemes spring from biology, some from physics, some from mathematics. But what they share is the same unnerving message: everything you know is wrong.

But for sheer audacity - and intellectual salesmanship - it would be hard to beat Stephen Wolfram, whose 1,263-page, self-published manifesto, ``A New Kind of Science,'' was holding its own last week atop Amazon's best-seller chart, along with ``Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood'' and ``The Nanny Diaries."
Interesting ideas rarely spring up in isolation. The vision Dr. Wolfram has so meticulously laid out in such an arresting manner is part of a movement some call digital physics or digital philosophy - a worldview that has been slowly developing for 20 years.

Just last week, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named Seth Lloyd published a paper in Physical Review Letters estimating how many calculations the universe could have performed since the Big Bang - 10120 operations on 1090 bits of data, putting the mightiest supercomputer to shame. This grand computation essentially consists of subatomic particles ricocheting off one another and ``calculating'' where to go.

As the researcher Tommaso Toffoli mused back in 1984, ``In a sense, nature has been continually computing the `next state' of the universe for billions of years; all we have to do - and, actually, all we can do - is `hitch a ride' on this huge ongoing computation.''
What the detractors are less likely to emphasize is the track record of traditional mathematical methods in forecasting, say, the recent gyrations in the stock market or the way a forest fire will burn. Here the usual methods of science are stretched to the limit - and that is where an influential minority of scientists quietly agree on the kind of cure Dr. Wolfram is so loudly prescribing: replacing equations with a different kind of mathematical device called algorithms, simple little computer programs.

THIS would represent a true upheaval. Mainstream science is rooted in the notion that space and time form a continuum: a perfectly smooth expanse that can be precisely described by what mathematicians call the real numbers, those that can have an endless string of digits after the decimal point. This kind of mathematics - the basis of calculus - is undeniably powerful. Physicists can predict the characteristics of a single subatomic particle with an accuracy equivalent to, as Richard Feynman liked to say, estimating the distance between New York and Los Angeles within the width of a human hair.
Had Dr. Wolfram been more demonstrative in parceling out credit to those who share his vision (many are mentioned, in passing, in the book's copious notes), they might be lining up to provide testimonials. It's the kind of book some may wish they had written.

Instead they were busy writing papers, shepherding them through the review process, presenting them in conferences, discussing them at seminars and workshops - going through the paces of normal science. That is how an idea progresses. But sometimes it takes a bombshell to bring it to center stage.
Source: New York Times LINK

So the problem, it seems is not so much what he's saying, it's how he says it. But when push comes to shove, things are about to change.

For one contrarian view you could try Cosma Rohilla Shalizi :

Stephen Wolfram, Cellular Automata and Complexity: Useful collection of Wolfram's papers on CAs. (Co-authors are listed in the smallest typeface legible without a magnifying glass.) He couldn't sell it, but he could give it away via comp.theory.cell-automata, which is where I got my copy. In fact, as of April 1997, the papers are available on-line. This does not mention Wolfram's patent on lattice gases. There are other stories about Wolfram which would probably get me in legal trouble if I related them.

Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science: This is almost, but not quite, a case for the immortal ``What is true is not new, and what is new is not true''. The one new, true thing is a proof that the elementary CA rule 110 can support universal, Turing-complete computation. (One of Wolfram's earlier books states that such a thing is obviously impossible.) This however was shown not by Wolfram but by Matthew Cook (this is the ``technical content and proofs'' for which Wolfram acknowledges Cook, in six point type, in his frontmatter). In any case it cannot bear the weight Wolfram places on it. Watch This Space for a detailed critique of this book, a rare blend of monster raving egomania and utter batshit insanity."

What do I think? Well it's obvious isn't it:

then rule 110 said, let Wolfram be
and all was light


Over here in Spain perhaps the most noticable consequence of this process is the growing number of power cuts as people increasingly install and use air conditioning, but over in Alaska the effects are more pronounced.

To live in Alaska when the average temperature has risen about seven degrees over the last 30 years means learning to cope with a landscape that can sink, catch fire or break apart in the turn of a season. In Alaska, rising temperatures, whether caused by greenhouse gas emissions or nature in a prolonged mood swing, are not a topic of debate or an abstraction. Mean temperatures have risen by 5 degrees in summer and 10 degrees in winter since the 1970's, federal officials say.
While President Bush was dismissive of a report the government recently released on how global warming will affect the nation, the leading Republican in this state, Senator Ted Stevens, says that no place is experiencing more startling change from rising temperatures than Alaska.Among the consequences, Senator Stevens says, are sagging roads, crumbling villages, dead forests, catastrophic fires and possible disruption of marine wildlife......

Climate models predict that Alaska temperatures will continue to rise over this century, by up to 18 degrees.
LINK Discuss: Too Hot to Handle

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