It’s two o’clock on an ordinary Monday afternoon, and Stephen Wolfram is just showing up for work. He greets an assitant grabs a batch of charts, and heads for his first meeting, a conference with a team of graphic designers. Together they’ll tackle a tough question regarding a piece of Wolfram-designed software. The question: In what variety of colors should the software be displayed on a computer screen?

Wait a minute. This is Stephen Wolfram, the boy genius and enfant terrible, the theoretical physicist who helped invent the field of cellular automata (how complex systems can evolve from the interplay of simple; identical components) and drew from colleagues accolades like "astonishiong" (Nobel physicist Richard Feynman) and “vision to do things that people just didn’t imagine were possible” (former University of illinois computer scientist Stephen Omohundro). What’s Wolfram doing dedicating an entire afternoon to what amounts to algorithmic interior decorating? And...

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