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Stephen Wolfram: Simple Solutions


Even if you're not into exotic subjects such as particle physics, cosmology, or math theory, chances are pretty good that you know about Mathematica, the program created by physicist Stephen Wolfram. He's the iconoclastic London-born genius who won a PhD from California Institute of Technology in just one year, at age 20.

Since Mathematica's launch in 1988 by Wolfram Research Inc., the software has become hugely popular among product designers, architects, and financial analysts. And for engineers and scientists, Mathematica is something of a bible. Wolfram's software is used not only to solve complex math problems but also to create and analyze computer models. It can predict how varying the ingredients in a shampoo will alter its flow through different-size bottle openings, for example, or how the pounding of ocean waves will affect a breakwater.

Mathematica quickly made Stephen Wolfram a multimillionaire -- and funded more than a decade of independent research into fundamental issues in science. But the program wasn't just a cash cow. It was Wolfram's primary tool in searching for the principles that govern a wide range of enigmas, from how the universe was formed to why zebras have stripes.

After finding simple, algorithmic answers to many questions that remain unexplained by traditional theories, Wolfram self-published the results of his work in a controversial 2002 book called A New Kind of Science. It's a dense tome of 1,200 pages, yet it has sold more than 200,000 copies, at up to $45 a pop. In addition, some 500,000 people have downloaded free chapters or entire copies from www.wolframscience.com.

A lot of mainstream scientists scoffed at NKS, Wolfram's shorthand for A New Kind of Science. Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, a University of Texas physicist, writing in The New York Review of Books, labeled the book a "failure," but "an interesting one."

Was Wolfram disappointed? Nope. "What I'm trying to do is make a new kind of science, not win a Nobel prize," he says. To show that his ideas are starting to catch on, he points to a steadily growing stream of scientific papers "following up on NKS." The number of papers is climbing toward 1,000, with roughly 15 cropping up every week in peer-reviewed journals.

Since finishing his book, Wolfram, who turned 46 in August, has been developing new and more advanced algorithmic tools for Mathematica while also pondering the almost limitless applications he sees for NKS. "Look at almost any area -- nanotechnology or drug design or network routing or all sorts of other things -- and NKS can provide fascinating insights and new technologies."

One that has just emerged is dubbed WolframTones. It's an NKS program on a Web site (http://tones.wolfram.com) that people can use to create unique ring tones for cell phones. WolframTones was "almost frivolously conceived," the physicist admits: He wanted his own cell phone to have a distinctive ring and his program worked better than expected.

The next revision of Mathematica won't be the least bit frivolous, though. "It will end up being the biggest change since version 1," Wolfram declares, because it will "go incredibly much farther. I myself need the things we're building to go to the next level of NKS." He hopes to discover the program that runs the universe -- meaning the entire universe and everything in it. He's betting it will be an astonishingly simple program, like all the others in NKS: probably just a handful of lines of Mathematica code.

By Otis Port


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