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Hating the Wolfram

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There's something that's always intrigued me when it comes to Stephen Wolfram.

If you don't know Wolfram, he's a child prodigy who went on to become a multi-millionaire programmer. Here's a bit of wiki:

Wolfram was educated at Eton. At the age of 15, he published an article on particle physics[4] and entered St John's College, University of Oxford at age 17. Wolfram wrote a widely cited paper on heavy quark production at age 18.[2] He received his Ph.D. in particle physics from the California Institute of Technology at age 20[5] and joined the faculty there.
Wolfram became highly interested in cellular automata at age 21.[2] His work in particle physics, cosmology and computer science earned him one of the first MacArthur awards. Wolfram's work with Geoffrey Fox on the theory of the strong interaction is still used today in experimental particle physics.[6] He founded the journal Complex Systems in 1987.

You'd think somebody with that pedigree would be honored and revered among hackers, but nope, that's not the case.

I ran across Wolfram when I read (most) of his book, "A New Kind of Science" In it, Wolfram goes over a lot of things, but his main point is that systems created along the lines of the "Game of Life" (Cellular Automata) are fundamentally different kinds of systems than have ever been seen before, and probably merit their own field of scientific study.

Since Wolfram is not a crank, and has interesting things to say in this area, I would have thought he would have been widely praised. But there are a lot of folks carrying pitchforks and torches out for Stephen, and best I can figure it boils down to a few things.


  • He's copying from others

  • His writing is atrocious

  • He vastly overstates his case

  • He is egocentric and difficult to get along with

  • He has lost credibility with the community

  • He lives in a bubble

  • At best he's an impostor

What's interesting to me is how personal these points are. We are not talking about the quality of his ideas so much as we are talking about the man, the very definition of ad hominem. Where we do talk about Wolfram's ideas it's only to denigrate them by belittling them.

I found the book fascinating and engaging, and although I stopped about halfway through (the prose was a bit painful), it wasn't for lack of ideas. Yes, there are many amalgamated concepts here, but that's not really important. I don't care who gets credit -- which probably distinguishes me from many technical writers.

Stephens idea of computational complexity are especially insightful and it's very troubling that these haven't caught on. His allusions to a discrete, computational universe I found so fascinating that I've made them part of my "best guess" view of cosmology. Understanding that the complexity of the results had little, if anything, to do with the complexity of the ruleset was mind-blowing.

Yes, he probably is annoying in person, and he probably copied a bunch of other stuff, and he overstates his case. But none of that is any different than any other philosopher who wrote a book. Every great thinker I've ever read took his ideas too far because he got immersed in them, liberally stole from others, and had personality quirks. And as for bad writing, geesh! Have you read any philosophical works lately? Even the "classics" are so wrapped up in nuance, style, and verbosity as to make them impenetrable to the average reader.

I just don't get it. Unless -- and I suspect this -- that the reaction to Wolfram is more along the lines of "he doesn't play well with others". Put another way, this part of science is cliquish and provincial, and Wolfram isn't part of the cool kids club. He just doesn't fit in.

But that can't be it, can it?

1 Comment

Some people get so excited by powerful ideas that eventually they genuinely believe or act as if they had personally discovered them.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on March 16, 2011 8:20 AM.

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Recently I created a list of books that hackers recommend to each other -- what are the books super hackers use to help guide them form their own startups and make millions? hn-books might be a site you'd like to check out.
On the low-end of the spectrum, I realized that a lot of people have problems logging into Facebook, of all things. So I created a micro-site to help folks learn how to log-in correctly, and to share various funny pictures and such that folks might like to share with their friends. It's called (appropriately enough) facebook login help