Stephen Wolfram is a distinguished scientist, inventor, author, and business leader. Born in London in 1959, Wolfram was educated at Eton, Oxford, and Caltech. He published his first scientific paper at the age of 15, and had received his PhD in theoretical physics from Caltech by the age of 20. Having started to use computers in 1973, Wolfram rapidly became a leader in the emerging field of scientific computing, and in 1979 he began the construction of SMP—the first modern computer algebra system—which he released commercially in 1981. In recognition of his early work in physics and computing, Wolfram became in 1981 the youngest recipient of a MacArthur Prize Fellowship.
That same year, Wolfram set out on an ambitious new direction in science aimed at understanding the origins of complexity in nature. Through the mid-1980s, Wolfram continued this work, discovering a number of fundamental connections between computation and nature, and inventing such concepts as computational irreducibility. Following his scientific work on complex systems research, in 1986 Wolfram founded the first research center and the first journal in the field, "Complex Systems."
In 1987, Wolfram launched Wolfram Research, Inc., which soon distinguished itself as a premier software company with the release of the first version of "Mathematica." A major advance in computing, "Mathematica" is a computational software program used in science, mathematics, and engineering.
By the mid-1990s his discoveries led him to develop a fundamentally new conceptual framework, which he then spent the remainder of the 1990s applying not only to new kinds of questions, but also to many existing foundational problems in physics, biology, computer science, mathematics, and several other fields. And after more than ten years of highly concentrated work, Wolfram finally described his achievements in his 1200-page book "A New Kind of Science."
Building on these previous projects, Wolfram in May 2009 launched Wolfram|Alpha—an ambitious, long-term project to make as much of the world's knowledge as possible computable, and accessible to everyone.
Question: What role does human creativity play in our understanding of formal scientific truths?
Stephen Wolfram: We routinely go out into the computational universe to find algorithms which when we as humans look at them we say that is really clever, that is you know it’s a really neat thing and it’s something where if there had been a human creating them we would have been very impressed by that human’s creativity, but actually these things were just found by searching this sort of formal abstract universe of possible programs.
So I think it’s sort of an interesting question when we look at different areas of sort of human endeavor to what extent what we have found, what we create, is something that is a feature of kind of us as humans and to what it sort of... to what extent it sort of... what is necessarily out there.
One area I’ve thought about quite a bit is mathematics and the question is, is the mathematics that we have today sort of a necessary kind of formal structure, or is it something that really is more a reflection of the particular history of human mathematics. And so one thing that we can think about is this: if we look at sort of all the mathematics that has been done—mathematics is a field of inquiry where on thinks one is starting from a collection of axioms and then deriving all these theorems of what is true about mathematics. The complete axioms for all the mathematics that has been done in the last however many years fit on a page or two of something therein the "New Kind of Science" book for example actually displayed on a couple of pages. So that is sort of the raw material for all of mathematics is a couple of pages of axioms. From those axioms about three million or so theorems have been derived in the history of mathematics. And the question though is: why those axioms? Why not other axioms?
Well we can sort of think about the universe of all possible axioms. We can just imagine kind of enumerating possible axiom systems that one can formally consider and we do that and we can say out of this universe of all possible axiom systems where do the axioms that correspond to our particular mathematics lie? And so I know the answer to that for things like logic for example. I know that logic, if you were to enumerate all possible axiom systems, logic is about 50,000th axiom system that you’d find in that enumeration, so realizing that it makes one think about sort of why this mathematics and not some other? And what realizes is really the mathematics we have today is something that is a direct historical consequence of ideas that existed in ancient Babylon, arithmetic and geometry and so on, that got sort of generalized to give us the mathematics we have today and that is the mathematics that we use to kind of make our descriptions in physics and do our engineering and so on.
What one realizes is that there is this whole sort of universe of other possible mathematics that is out there, that in fact in many cases can be much more powerful in describing things that we see in the natural world and so on, and that form sort of the basis for a lot of new directions in science and technology and elsewhere. So in a sense the mathematics that we have today is very much it’s a great historical artifact. It’s probably, if one looks at the history of civilization, mathematics as it exists today is probably the single largest artifact in the sense that more hands have been involved in sort of molding the particular intellectual thing that has been created than anything else in history, but we have to realize that it is very much a human artifact created from its history, not something that is sort of a necessary feature of the way that sort of formal systems of the universe work.
Recorded July 26, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
Image courtesy Flickr user Creativity103.
It’s a sad but true fact that most data that’s generated or collected—even with considerable effort—never gets any kind of serious analysis.