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Stephen Wolfram: Discovering a New Science
Computer Science / Programming

Stephen Wolfram: Discovering a New Science

4 min read
Stephen Wolfram’s thoughts on computing, nature, and everything in between have often drawn controversy. What is not up for debate, however, is the tremendous impact his ideas and inventions have had on technology.

A dropout-turned-Ph.D.

“This is actually the first high school graduation I’ve ever been to,” said Wolfram in a 2014 commencement address to the graduates of Stanford Online High School, where one of his children was a student.

Wolfram was born and raised in London. Both of his parents were German Jews who fled Nazism as children in the 1930s. Wolfram began devouring science books at a young age and was submitting physics papers to academic journals by age 15. He didn’t have much use for formal education, however. At 17, he dropped out of Eton College, the famous prep school. Even though he managed to get into Oxford, he later described the lectures as insufferable and eventually left to go to Cal Tech, where he had a Ph.D. at age 20.

“Could it be that some place out there in the computational universe, we might find our physical universe?”

The wunderkind does it all

Wolfram has spent the last 40 years on an innovation warpath.

He kicked things off in 1979 by developing a computer algebra program, Symbolic Manipulation Program. Such programs served as precursors to the development of deep learning algorithms that are now transforming technology. Wolfram, who was still at Cal Tech at the time, abandoned the project and resigned from the university over who would hold intellectual copyright for the software.

Then he got really into cellular automata, a grid of cells, each one of which has a certain number of states e.g. on and off, and cells evolve based on rules set. Like the founder of CA, the mathematician John von Neumann, Wolfram believed that the system could be a way to explain the very basis of the universe. He ultimately published a paper on the subject that has been cited over 10,000 times.

In 1986 he developed a software, Wolfram Mathematica, that remains popular for those seeking a high-level technical computing experience in a variety of fields.

In 2009, he developed WolframAlpha, an answer machine that was integrated into Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

A New Kind of Science

Wolfram’s most notable and most fiercely debated contribution to science is his 2002 opus, A New Theory of Everything. The scientist presents a variety of arguments and data over 1,200 pages, but his central contention is that there is a single algorithm that is the foundation of everything in existence.

“I have little doubt that within a matter of a few decades what I have done will have led to some dramatic changes in the foundations of technology — and in our basic ability to take what the universe provides and apply it for our own human purposes,” Wolfram wrote at the time.

Only time will tell if he’s right.

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