[Paleopsych] Q & A with Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science
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Tue Apr 12 19:39:43 UTC 2005
Q & A with Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science
Q: What is the story behind A New Kind of Science?
A: A New Kind of Science is about a series of rather dramatic
discoveries that I've made over the past 20 years. It started around
1981 when some computer experiments I was doing gave results that were
utterly different from anything I had ever seen before. For a few
years I tried to fit what I had found into the framework of existing
mathematics and science. But eventually I realized that to understand
what I had seen I would have to develop a whole new kind of science.
And that's how I came to build A New Kind of Science.
In the early 1980s I published some of the results from my early
computer experiments, particularly ones on some systems called
cellular automata. They created quite a stir, and over the last 15
years they have led to many books and thousands of scientific papers.
But I was never satisfied, for I had always thought that what I had
discovered was just the beginning of something much bigger.
By the mid-1980s, however, I had decided that to make more progress I
needed better tools. So I set about building Mathematica. And as I'd
planned, Mathematica has ended up being a tool that is useful not only
to me and my science but also to a few million other people doing
technical work of all kinds. I spent about five years just building
Mathematica and the company around it, but in 1991 I was able to go
back to spending a large part of my time on basic science.
I had thought that it would take only a couple of years to do what I
wanted to do, but it turned out that I discovered vastly more than I
had ever expected. I had never intended to tell the world so little
about what I was doing for so long, but I have been building what
turns out to be a very large and very novel intellectual structure,
and I realized early on that the only feasible way to present it was
in one coherent book. So after 10 and a half years of writing, that's
what A New Kind of Science is.
Q: What is the basic idea of A New Kind of Science?
A: Almost all the science that's been done for the past three hundred
or so years has been based in the end on the idea that things in our
universe somehow follow rules that can be represented by traditional
mathematical equations. The basic idea that underlies A New Kind of
Science is that that's much too restrictive, and that in fact one
should consider the vastly more general kinds of rules that can be
embodied, for example, in computer programs.
What started my work on A New Kind of Science are the discoveries I
made about what simple computer programs can do. One might have
thought that if a program was simple it should only do simple things.
But amazingly enough, that isn't even close to correct. And in fact
what I've discovered is that some of the very simplest imaginable
computer programs can do things as complex as anything in our whole
universe. It's this point that seems to be the secret that's used all
over nature to produce the complex and intricate things we see. And
understanding this point seems to be the key to a whole new way of
thinking about a lot of very fundamental questions in science and
elsewhere. And that's what I develop in A New Kind of Science.
Q: Who should read A New Kind of Science?
A: A New Kind of Science is about big new ideas and discoveries. So
anyone who is interested in those kinds of things should find it
interesting. It's very much a book about new things. And in the past
century or so, most new things that relate to science have been
described first in a rather technical way. But I've written A New Kind
of Science to be completely accessible to a general audience. It's
full of pictures (more than a thousand), and using these I've managed
(with great effort, I might add) to explain pretty much the whole
story of my new science in just plain ordinary language. (There are
extensive notes at the back of the book that are somewhat more
The results in A New Kind of Science have many big implications for
existing sciences--physical, biological, mathematical, computational,
and other. So people concerned with those sciences--both
professionally and out of interest--should find A New Kind of Science
important. Part of what I've done in A New Kind of Science is to
develop a new basic way of thinking about scientific questions, and I
think that'll be important not only for people who do science in
practice but also for people interested in general theory and
A New Kind of Science is very fundamentally based on the idea of
studying simple computer programs and what they do. I've made all
sorts of discoveries that really change one's intuition about such
things--which is important for anyone who spends time with computer
programs. There are aspects of A New Kind of Science that'll be
interesting to various other kinds of people. For example, it's full
of facts and ideas relevant to recreational mathematics. (Programs for
doing one's own experiments are in the notes at the back of the book,
as well being available online.) It's also full of intricate
computer-generated pictures of kinds that haven't been seen before,
and that should be pretty interesting to people concerned with all
sorts of types of design.
I'm particularly hoping that a lot of people early in their careers
will read A New Kind of Science and get involved with the ideas it
Q: Why a book? Why not a website?
A: There's going to be an increasingly large website about A New Kind
of Science. But what's still important about a physical book is that
it delimits its contents in a much more definite way than one can in a
more fluid medium like the web. In A New Kind of Science I've written
down in a complete and coherent way what I think people need to read
to understand my ideas and discoveries. The web can give more details,
and more interactivity. But it's hard to know if you've read
everything on a big website. And a website can change every day. In A
New Kind of Science I want to present what I've been thinking about
for the past 20 years in a single definite package that it's possible
for people to study in detail, and refer to unchanged for years to
There's also a practical issue: the graphics for A New Kind of Science
involve a huge amount of data--a total of about a gigabyte of
PostScript. And it's not realistic for most people to download that
over the web right now. But in a printed book one can handle that kind
of data. We're actually using the latest printing technology (together
with special paper) to be able to render images at very high
resolution. And the results are quite spectacular. In fact, in lots
and lots of cases they let one see what's going on in the systems I
study much better than one could possibly manage on any present-day
Q: How does A New Kind of Science relate to Mathematica?
A: Mathematica is what made A New Kind of Science possible. First, at
a very practical level: it provided the tools I needed to make the
discoveries that underlie A New Kind of Science. Second, at a more
abstract level: it showed me that one could really start from scratch
and build very big things from very simple elements. Of course, you
don't need to know anything about Mathematica to understand A New Kind
of Science--just like you don't need to know how computers work inside
to use one. But for me, Mathematica was a crucial step in being able
to create A New Kind of Science.
Q: Will you distribute software for people to do their own
A: A New Kind of Science is based on discoveries that I've made from
studying extremely simple computer programs. Mostly the programs are
so simple that--at least in Mathematica--they are just a line or two
long. So I've actually been able to include the complete programs for
a lot of my experiments in the notes at the back of A New Kind of
Science. This website has computer-readable versions of these
programs. And we have made a Mathematica application package,
A NEW KIND OF SCIENCE Explorer, that is a complete collection of
tools for doing experiments like the ones in A New Kind of Science.
Q: What is the picture on the cover of A New Kind of Science?
A: The yellow image is an example of one of the main discoveries of
the book. It's an extremely simple computer program--something called
the rule 110 cellular automaton--that turns out to produce behavior
that seems as complicated as anything in our universe.
The cover design was done by John Bonadies, who worked at our company
for more than a decade, edited our Graphica books, and has been
responsible for many of the graphic design awards Wolfram Research has
won over the years.
Q: How can I get a copy of A New Kind of Science?
A: Order it online! Or get it from almost any major bookstore. We
don't know exactly how many copies will be in which stores. But we do
know that the major bookstore chains, particularly in the U.S., have
ordered enough copies to stock their stores fairly well.
The book trade can be a little disorganized, especially for books
published the way mine is. If a bookstore seems to have trouble
finding the book, try telling them that the book is available through
both Ingram and Baker & Taylor, the two major book distributors in the
U.S. If they still can't find the book for you, you should probably
order it yourself online.
Q: Why is there another copy of the cover picture under the dust
A: We wanted the book to work both as a "trade book" with a dust
jacket and as a long-term book without a dust jacket. We ended up
finding a process for making the hard inner cover (case binding) that
produces a very nice surface.
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