Stephen Wolfram

First Person | Stephen Wolfram Courtesy of David Reiss/Wolfram Research, Inc. Stephen Wolfram--wunderkind, untamed scientist--possesses a mind that is uncluttered by daydreams and everyday intrusions. ("The Super Bowl? What's that?"

April 7, 2003

First Person | Stephen Wolfram

Courtesy of David Reiss/Wolfram Research, Inc.

Stephen Wolfram--wunderkind, untamed scientist--possesses a mind that is uncluttered by daydreams and everyday intrusions. ("The Super Bowl? What's that?" he once asked a colleague.) His brain turns over questions about the complexities of science, nature, and life, and instead of dismissing these puzzles, his mind works to answer them. So what if his answers turn science upside down? After all, here's a kid who was unimpressed with Eton and Oxford, published his first peer-reviewed paper at age 15, earned his PhD in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology five years later, and received the MacArthur genius award at age 21--not even wondering what he would do with the $120,000 in prize money.

About 20 years ago, Wolfram started pulling at a thread: complexity in nature. Along the way, he created Mathematica, a mathematical tool that led to his successful software company. In 1991, Wolfram, now 43, recused himself from much of life to write A New Kind of Science (Champaign, Ill.: Wolfram Media), which was published last year. This tome, weighing at least five pounds, proscribes long-established scientific dicta, including the space-time continuum theory. Wolfram argues that assigning simple algorithms to a computer can produce intricate behaviors ad infinitum. He says that by looking for life's cellular automata (an array of identically programmed "cells" that interact with one another), one can begin to understand the riddles of complexity.

Why haven't you read all the reviews of your book?
There are a lot of them, and they're not all that interesting.

Have you heard from biologists who have read your book?
Since the book came out, we've had 16,000 E-mail messages [whose writers are] interested in following up, in one way or another. I would guess a few thousand are from biologists. The typical kind of [question] would be: "Here's a process in biology. It seems that your methods would allow us to understand it. What kind of comments do you have?"

How has the book's reception been from biologists in general?
Rather enthusiastic. I think there's a tremendous awareness in that community that the next big steps have to involve theoretical modeling, and trying to understand global mechanisms. Questions about evolution theory often loom large in public discussions of biology. But a much greater interest among practicing biologists is to take what I've done and use it as a framework for new basic models and theories. People recognize that the genome contains some kind of program; the question is, what does that program actually do? And that is the kind of question my book gives one general methods to address.

On page 387, you talk about complex features of organisms, and you propose that these often "arise in essence, just because they are easy to produce with fairly simple programs."
Yes. When there is substantial complexity, particularly in one component--like a leaf shape--then I think its origin is often just the rather surprising fact that even very simple programs can produce complex behavior.

Do you get bored easily?
I tend not to do things I find boring. ... If I think the things I'm doing are pointless, I try to stop doing them as quickly as possible. Figuring out new things is what I like doing most.

How old were you when you became interested in science?
Perhaps 8 or 9. I really don't know anymore what got me started, though it was the 1960s and I was a little bit interested in things like the space program. Pretty soon I got really into physics, and I started reading physics textbooks.

What did you do for fun as a child?
When I was a kid, the thing that I was interested in was science. In doing science, if I wanted to get to the local university library, I had to bicycle. I suppose the bicycling was a more traditional kid thing to do.

Has having children changed how you think about life, about science, about yourself?
I'm lucky enough to have children who are interested in understanding all sorts of things, and it's certainly been fascinating to figure out how to explain science and business and so on to them. They've taught me a lot.

Are you modest?
Different people have different opinions on that. It's hard to see from the inside. Certainly I am a person who values truth over modesty. For example, in my book I chose to talk quite explicitly about the importance of some of my ideas and discoveries, because without that, it would be much more difficult for people to get a correct handle on where these fit in. My situation in life has let me really be an independent scientist. And that means I can optimize communicating ideas, rather than having my colleagues applaud my humility.