Alpha Goes Beta

You may have heard of a physicist and mathematician by the name of Stephen Wolfram, a man of remarkable gifts who was doing important work in particle physics by age 17, had his doctorate from Caltech by 20, and who went on to build an enormously successful business venture around a software product called Mathematica.

In his early twenties Wolfram began a serious study of “cellular automata”, which are programs for manipulating pixels in a grid according to predetermined rules. What makes these programs interesting is that they can generate astoundingly complex outputs from very simple rules. I first heard about them, I think, in 1970, when the great connoisseur of mathematical curiosities Martin Gardner (now 94!) wrote about John Horton Conway’s Game of Life in Scientific American’s Mathematical Games column. (If all of this is unfamiliar to you, and you’d like to see an example, take a look at the Wikipedia article about Game of Life here.)

Wolfram spent a very long time studying cellular automata, and in 2002 released a massive, self-published book called A New Kind Of Science (see also here) in which he made a number of audacious claims that in sum amounted to an assertion that cellular automata are, more or less, the way the world works. I read the book myself shortly after it came out; it was difficult, and not without flaws, but fascinating. I was so intrigued that I went on to write some CA software of my own just to play around with these intriguing new ideas (and to look at the beautiful, dynamic patterns the different rules create).

After New Kind of Science was published, to mixed reviews, Dr. Wolfram seemed to go off the radar for a few years, and I had the feeling he must be up to something. It turns out he was: according to this news item from a few days ago, he has been working on a new sort of query engine, one that, if the claims are accurate, will make Google look like little more than a gussied-up card-catalogue. It’s called Wolfram Alpha, and bills itself as a “computational knowledge engine”.

This should be interesting. If you’d like to learn more, sign up at the project’s website. And for more of the world of Wolfram, visit his blog, here, or his personal website, here.

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