September 12, 2007
I admit it: I pre-ordered Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science on Amazon.com back in the day… got it the day it came out… and was totally bewildered. I ended up selling it to a used book store.
But I still like the core ideas, to the extent I understand them, which is not much. The crude version is: Stephen Wolfram likes cellular automata, or simple rulesets that, when run recursively, produce interesting and surprisingly complex results, especially when you get them two, three, or more dimensions. In fact he thinks all of math and science (!) has fallen too deeply in the thrall of the equation — not necessarily a very “natural” thing — and has completely missed the potential analytic and explanatory power of the cellular automata.
Anyway, the point is, it’s provocative even if I don’t really get it, and so is his latest blog post:
Of course, as early theologians pointed out, the universe clearly has some order, some “design”. It could be that every particle in the universe has its own separate rule, but in reality things are much simpler than that.
But just how simple? A thousand lines of Mathematica code? A million lines? Or, say, three lines?
If it’s small enough, we really should be able to find it just by searching. And I think it’d be embarrassing if our universe is out there, findable by today’s technology, and we didn’t even try.
Of course, that’s not at all how most of today’s physicists like to think. They like to imagine that by pure thought they can somehow construct the laws for the universe—like universe engineers.
So it’s basically theory via Google: Instead of deducing the laws of the universe, you arrive at them via computational brute force. Just try every combination of simple rules you can think of ‘til you get something that looks like physics! Easy!
Great images in the post, too, as always. Wolfram famously self-published his book (actually, it’s even better: He founded a new company to publish it) because he couldn’t find any existing publishers willing or able to reproduce his illustrations at the resolution he demanded. Awesome.