Stephen Wolfram (born
29 August 1959 in
London) is a British physicist,
software developer, mathematician, computer programmer, author and businessman,
known for his work in theoretical particle physics, cosmology, cellular
automata, complexity theory,
computer algebra and the Wolfram Alpha computational knowledge
engine.
Biography
Stephen
Wolfram's parents were Jewish refugees who emigrated from Westphalia to England in
1933. Wolfram's father, Hugo Wolfram, was a
novelist (Into a Neutral Country), and his mother, Sybil
Wolfram, was a professor of philosophy at
the University of
Oxford. He has a younger brother,
Conrad Wolfram.
Wolfram
was educated at Eton.
At the age
of 15, he published an article on particle physics and entered Oxford
University (St John's College) at age 17. He wrote a widely cited paper on
heavy
quark production at age 18.
Wolfram
received his Ph.D. in particle
physics from the California Institute of
Technology at age 20 and joined the faculty there. He
became highly interested in
cellular
automata at age 21. Wolfram's work in particle physics,
cosmology and computer science earned him one of the first
MacArthur awards. His work with Geoffrey Fox on the theory of the
strong interaction is still
used today in experimental particle physics.
Wolfram founded the journal
Complex Systems in 1987.
He is married to a mathematician and has four children.
Work
Symbolic Manipulation Program
Wolfram led the development of the
computer algebra system SMP
(
Symbolic Manipulation
Program: SMP was essentially Version Zero of
Mathematica) in the Caltech physics department
during 1979–1981, but a dispute with the administration over the
intellectual property rights
regarding SMP—patents, copyright, and faculty involvement in
commercial ventures—eventually caused him to resign from Caltech.
SMP was further developed and marketed commercially by Inference
Corp. of Los Angeles during 1983–1988.
In 1981, Wolfram was awarded a
MacArthur Fellowship.
In 1983, he left for
the School of Natural Sciences of the Institute for
Advanced Study, where he studied cellular automata, mainly with
computer simulations. In the middle 1980s Wolfram worked on
simulations of physical processes (such as
turbulent fluid flow) with
cellular automata on the
Connection Machine alongside
Richard Feynman.
Mathematica
In 1986
Wolfram left the Institute for Advanced Study for the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign where he founded their Center for Complex Systems
Research and started to develop the computer algebra system
Mathematica, which was first released in 1988, when he left
academia. In 1987 he co-founded a company called
Wolfram Research which continues to develop
and market the program. Stephen Wolfram is currently the majority
shareholder.
A New Kind of Science
From 1992 to 2002, he worked on his controversial book
A New Kind of Science, which
presents an empirical study of very simple computational systems.
Additionally, it argues that for fundamental reasons these types of
systems, rather than traditional mathematics, are needed to model
and understand complexity in nature. Wolfram's conclusion is that
the universe is digital in its nature, and runs on fundamental laws
which can be described as simple programs. He predicts a
realization of this within the scientific communities will have a
major and revolutionary influence on physics, chemistry and biology
and the majority of the scientific areas in general, which is the
reason for the book's title.
Since the release of the book in 2002, Wolfram has split his time
between developing Mathematica and encouraging people to get
involved with the subject matter of
A New Kind of Science
by giving talks, holding conferences, and starting a summer school
devoted to the topic.
The simplest universal Turing machine
In
A New Kind of Science, Wolfram claimed to have found
the simplest known
universal
Turing machine, one with 2 states and 5 colours. Afterwards,
Wolfram made an empirical investigation of 2,985,984 (i.e.,
12
^{6}) possible
2-state 3-colour
Turing machines (because it was known that no machine with 2
states and 2 colours can be universal), and from among these
candidates he selected one that he had an intuition might indeed be
the simplest universal Turing machine.
A US $25,000 prize was announced, to be awarded to the first person
or group who would provide a formal proof that that particular
candidate is universal or that it is not.
Alex Smith, a 20-year-old undergraduate from Birmingham, UK, claimed to have proven the universality of
Wolfram's 2,3 Turing machine and was awarded the prize.
Computer scientist
Vaughan Pratt later
claimed to have found an error in the proof's reasoning. Wolfram,
Smith, and others disputed Pratt's claim on the same discussion
group.
Computational knowledge engine
In March 2009, Wolfram announced Wolfram|Alpha, a computational
data engine with a new approach to knowledge extraction and an
easy-to-use interface, launched on May 16, 2009. The engine is
based on
natural language
processing, a large library of algorithms and answers queries
using the approach described in
A New Kind of Science. The
availability of an
application programming
interface (API) will allow other applications to extend and
enhance Alpha. The Wolfram|Alpha engine is not a search engine in
that it does not simply return a list of results based on a query,
but it instead attempts to compute an answer to its input.
Nova Spivack opined that "it could be as
important as
Google".
References
Further reading
External links
- Stephen
Wolfram's personal website
- Wolfram
Research blog to which Stephen Wolfram contributes
- Wolfram Science the official website of Stephen
Wolfram's A New Kind of
Science, free online access to full text
- Wolfram
Alpha computational knowledge engine
- Stephen Wolfram discusses Wolfram|Alpha: Computational
Knowledge Engine at the Berkman Center on April 28, 2009
- Wolfram|Alpha: Searching for Truth HPlus
magazine, Rudy Rucker, April 6,
2009
- Video (and audio) interview/discussion with Stephen
Wolfram by George
Johnson on Bloggingheads.tv,
February 23, 2008
- Stephen Wolfram On The Future Forbes, David
M. Ewalt, October 15, 2007
- IT Conversations: Stephen Wolfram - A New Kind of
Science February 13, 2003
- God, Stephen Wolfram, and Everything Else Forbes, Michael S. Malone, November 27,
2000
- A Study in Complexity Technology Review, Robert Lee Hotz,
October 1997
- Physicist Awarded 'Genius' Prize Finds Reality in
Invisible World by Gladwin Hill, The New York Times, May 24,
1981 (subscription req.)
- Video of Wolfram speaking at UCSD H.Paul Rockwood
Memorial Lecture
- Video of Stephen Wolfram speaking at the
International Conference on Complex Systems, hosted by the New
England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI)
- " A Face From Words" by Enrique Zeleny, Wolfram Demonstrations
Project