Power User: Does modeling hold the secrets of the universe?

John McCormick

Mathematica 4.2, the latest version of one of my favorite problem-solving toolkits, came out this summer at the same time as the program's creator's book: A New Kind of Science.

I was impressed by the innovations in Mathematica 4.2, including the use of Extensible Markup Language to import and export data. But the 1,280-page book, published by Wolfram Media Inc. of Champaign, Ill., left me wondering.

Stephen Wolfram's thesis is that everything in the universe, from quantum events to macroeconomics, can be modeled as cellular automata'simple arrays of programmed cells that interact with each other.

Nowhere does the book echo the modesty of Sir Isaac Newton's 'I stood on the shoulders of giants.' At times it gives the impression that Wolfram felt he had trod on the toes of midgets.

A reader might conclude that the book boils down to: 'The stock market (or art, genetics, human interaction, particle physics, thermodynamics) is very complex. Some simple cellular automata produce very complex results. Therefore, cellular automata are related to everything complex, and vice versa.'

I looked for concrete examples of how to match up particular algorithms with specific problems. I found none. And how would modelers of cellular automata know when they had reached a solution'in other words, when to stop running the program?

Is it news that simple algorithms can produce highly complex results? DNA consists of two pairs of four nucleotides. The only difference between the ink on this page and Wolfram himself lies in the arrangement of binary sequences of pairs.

If the entire universe can be understood according to Wolfram, the only way to 'solve' some problems is to let the universe run and see what happens. Beyond the most basic systems, everything from the motion of a drop of water to human thought would exhibit equal complexity.

That does simplify science by showing that many problems may be just too complex to solve, ever. But if you can't use science to predict and test, is it physics or metaphysics?

No monk laboring for years to illuminate a manuscript ever turned out a more beautiful work than A New Kind of Science, although it was self-published and never subjected to critical peer review. Read it while running Mathematica and a Web browser'there are many equations from the book at www.wolframscience.com/nks/programs. It's an impressive multimedia experience.

But the lack of footnotes makes it difficult to know which parts are Wolfram's and which are commentary on the work of others such as MIT's Edward Fredkin, who originated the idea of the universe as an automaton.

Is Wolfram's book mere bubblegum for the multimedia-minded or a new way to visualize everything? We may never know, but it's a wonderful read for systems folks.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at [email protected].

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