Stephen Wolfram

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Stephen Wolfram in 2008

Stephen Wolfram (born 29 August 1959) is a British scientist known for his work in theoretical particle physics, cellular automata, complexity theory, and computer algebra. He is the creator of the computer program Mathematica.


  • Cellular automata are discrete dynamical systems with simple construction but complex self-organizing behaviour. Evidence is presented that all one-dimensional cellular automata fall into four distinct universality classes. Characterizations of the structures generated in these classes are discussed. Three classes exhibit behaviour analogous to limit points, limit cycles and chaotic attractors. The fourth class is probably capable of universal computation, so that properties of its infinite time behaviour are undecidable.
  • Computational reducibility may well be the exception rather than the rule: Most physical questions may be answerable only through irreducible amounts of computation. Those that concern idealized limits of infinite time, volume, or numerical precision can require arbitrarily long computations, and so be formally undecidable.
  • Problem 9. What is the correspondence between cellular automata and continuous systems?
    Cellular automatat are discrete in several respects. First, they consist of a discrete spatial lattice of sites. Second, they evolve in discrete steps. And finally, each site has only a finite discrete set of possible values.
    The first two forms of discreteness are addressed in the numerical analysis of approximate solutions to, say, differential equations. ...
    The third form of discreteness in cellular automata is not so familiar from numerical analysis. It is an extreme form of round-off, in which each "number" can have only a few possible values (rather than the usual 216 or 232).
  • It was the spring of 1978 and I was 18 years old. I’d been publishing papers on particle physics for a few years, and had gotten quite known around the international particle physics community (and, yes, it took decades to live down my teenage-particle-physicist persona). I was in England, but planned to soon go to graduate school in the US, and was choosing between Caltech and Princeton. And one weekend afternoon when I was about to go out, the phone rang. In those days, it was obvious if it was an international call. “This is Murray Gell-Mann”, the caller said, then launched into a monologue about why Caltech was the center of the universe for particle physics at the time.

"Computing a Theory of Everything" (2010)[edit]

Stephen Wolfram (2010), Computing a theory of everything TED conference talk in February 2010, posted in April 2010.
  • I had a very selfish reason for building Mathematica. I wanted to use it myself, a bit like Galileo got to use his telescope four hundred years ago. But I wanted to look, not at the astronomical universe, but at the computational universe.
  • It's always seemed like a big mystery how nature, seemingly so effortlessly, manages to produce so much that seems to us so complex. Well, I think we found its secret. It's just sampling what's out there in the computational universe.
  • Could it be that some place out there in the computational universe, we might find our physical universe?
  • I'm committed to seeing this project done. To see if within this decade we can finally hold in our hands the rule for our universe, and know where our universe lies in the space of all possible universes.
  • I think Computation is destined to be the defining idea of our future.

Stephen Wolfram: Fundamental Theory of Physics, Life, and the Universe (Sep 15, 2020)[edit]

Lex Fridman Podcast #124, a source.
  • Can we use programs instead of equations to make models of the world? ...[I]n the beginning of the 1980s ...I did a bunch of computer experiments. ...It took me a few years to really say, "Wow, there's a big important phenomenon here that lets... complex things arise from very simple programs." ...[A] bunch of other years go by [and] I start of doing ...more systematic computer experiments ...and find ...that ...this phenomenon actually something incredibly general... [T]hat led me to this... principle of computational equivalence... [A]s part of that process I said, "OK... simple programs can make models of complicated things. What about the whole universe?" ...and so I got to thinking, "Could we use these ideas to study fundamental physics?" ...I happened to know a lot about traditional fundamental physics. ...I had a bunch of ideas about how to do this in the early 1990s. I made... technical progress. ...I wrote about them back in 2002.
  • It's a lot easier for one person to have a crisp new idea than it is for a big committee... It can happen that you have a great idea but the world isn't ready... for it. ...This has happened to me plenty. ...It's actually a pretty good idea, but... either you're not really ready for it, or the ambient world isn't... and it's hard for the thing... to get traction.
  • What's happened is, for 300 years people basically said, "If you want to make a model of things in the world, mathematical equations are the best place to go. In the last 15 years: it doesn't happen. New models... most often are made with programs, not with equations. ...Was that ...going to happen anyway? Was that a consequence of my particular work and my particular book? It's hard to know for sure. ...Was there a chain of academic references? Probably not.
  • [W]e live... in the pockets of reducibility. ...I should have realized [that] very many years ago, but didn't... [I]t could very well be that everything about the world is computationally irreducible and completely unpredictable, but... in our experience of the world there is at least some amount of prediction we can make. ...[T]hat's because we have ...chosen a slice of to think about the universe, in which we can... sample a certain amount of computational reducibility, and that's... where we exist. ...It may not be the whole story about how the universe is, but it is that part of the universe that we care about and ...operate in. ...In science, that's been ...a very special case has chosen to talk a lot about places where there is this computational reducibility... The motion of the planets can be ...predicted. The... weather is much harder to predict. ...[S]cience has tended to concentrate itself on places where its methods have allowed successful prediction.
  • [F]iguring out where those pockets [of reducibility] are... is an essential thing... in science. ...If you just pick an arbitrary thing and say, "What's the answer to this question?" That question may not be one that has a computationally reducible answer. ...If you ...walk along the series of questions... you can go down this chain of reducible, answerable things, but if you just... pick a question at random... most likely it will be irreducible. ...When we engineer things, we tend to ...keep in this zone of reducibility. When we're thrown things by the natural world... [we're] not at all certain that we will be kept in this... zone...
  • If you think about things that happen, as being computations... a computation in the sense that it has definite rules... You follow them many steps and you get some result. ...If you look at all these different computations that can happen, whether... in the natural world... in our brains... in our mathematics, whatever else, the big question is how do these computations compare. ...Are there dumb ...and smart computations, or are they somehow all equivalent? ...[T]he thing that I ...was ...surprised to realize from ...experiments the early 90s, and now we have tons more evidence for ...[is] this ...principle of computational equivalence, which basically says that when one of these computations ...doesn't seem like it's doing something obviously simple, then it has reached this ...equivalent layer of computational sophistication of everything. So what does that mean? ...You might say that ...I'm studying this tiny little program ...and my brain is surely much smarter ...I'm going to be able to systematically outrun [it] because I have a more sophisticated computation ...but ...the principle ...says ...that doesn't work. Our brains are doing computations that are exactly equivalent to the kinds of computations that are being done in all these other sorts of systems. ...It means that we can't systematically outrun these systems. These systems are computationally irreducible in the sense that there's no ...shortcut ...that jumps to the answer.
  • [S]cience has become used to... using the little... pockets of computational reducibility ([A]n inevitable consequence of computational irreducibility... There have to be these pockets ...scattered around.) to be able to find those cases where you can jump ahead.
  • [In] Ancient Babylon... they were trying to predict three kinds of things.... where the planets would be, what the weather would be like, and who would win or lose a certain battle; and they had no idea which of these things would be more predictable than the other.
  • I think there is an infinite collection of these local pockets [of reducibility]. We'll never run out...
  • If we want to have a predictable life... then we have to build in these... pockets of reducibility. If we were... existing in this irreducible world, we'd never be able to... know what's going to happen.
  • If we describe... heat... the air... it's this temperature, this pressure. That's as much as we can say... People [from the future] will say, "I just can't believe they didn't realize that there was this detail and all these molecules that were bouncing around, and that they could make use of that." ...One of the scenarios for the very long term history the heat death of the universe where everything... becomes thermodynamically boring... equilibrium. People say that's a really bad outcome, but actually... it's an outcome where there's all this computation going on... molecules bouncing around in very complicated ways, doing this very elaborate computation. It just happens to be a computation that right now, we haven't found ways to understand... [O]ur brains... and our mathematics and our science... haven't found ways to tell an interesting story about that. It just looks boring to us.
  • This is what you... learn from this principle of computational equivalence. ...[I]t's both a message of ...hope, and ...[that] you're not as special as you think you are... We're just doing computations like things in nature do computations, like those gas molecules do computations, like the weather does computations. The only thing about the computations that we do that's very special is that we understand what they are... because they're connected to our purposes, our ways of thinking...
  • It's not... something where you say... you've got the fundamental theory of everything, then... [you can] tell me whether... lions are going to eat tigers or something. ...No, you have to run this thing for ...10500 steps know ...You say this rule enough times and you will get the whole universe. ...That's what it means to ...have a fundamental theory of physics ...You've got this rule, it's potentially simple... You've kind of reduced the problem of physics to a problem of mathematics... as if you generate the digits of pi.
  • I thought... I had a pretty good idea for what the structure of this... theory that's underneath space and time and so on might be like. ...I thought, "Gosh, in my lifetime... we might be able to figure out what happens in the first 10-100 seconds of the universe. ...It's pretty far from anything that we can see today and it would be ...hard to test for what's right ...To my huge surprise, although it should have been obvious, ...we managed to get unbelievably much further than that. ...It turns out that even though there's this ...bed of computational irreducibility that ...all these simple rules run into, ...there are ...certain pieces of computational reducibility that ...generically occur for large classes of these rules, and... the big pieces of computational reducibility are ...the pillars of 20th century physics. That's the amazing thing, that general relativity and quantum field theory... turn out to be precisely the stuff you can say. There's a lot you can't say... at this... irreducible level where you.. don't... know what's going to happen. You have to run it [and] you can't run it within our universe... The things you can say turn out to be, very beautifully, exactly the structure that was found in 20th century physics...
  • What we realized is that... these theories are generic to a huge class of systems that have these particular very unstructured, underlying rules. ...[P]eople have been struggling for a long time... How does general relativity, the theory of gravity, relate to quantum mechanics? They seem to have all kinds of incompatibilities. ...What we realized is at some level they are the same theory!
  • The remarkable thing is, what we've been able to do, is to make from this very... structurally simple underlying set of ideas, we've been able to build this... very elaborate structure that's both very abstract and... mathematically rich, and... it touches many of the ideas that people have had. ...[T]hings like string theory... twistor theory...

About Stephen Wolfram[edit]

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