Adventures of a Computational Explorer: A book review by Bob Morris

Adventures of a Computational Explorer
Stephen Wolfram
Wolfram Media (October 2019)

“There’s so many wonderful things to do, and I’m just getting started.”

That’s a remarkable statement by Stephen Wolfram, someone who was educated at Eton, Oxford, and Caltech, earning his PhD in physics in 1979 at the age of 20. He founded Wolfram Research in 1987 and as CEO built it into one of the world’s most respected and innovative companies, whose products are relied on by millions of people around the world.

Briefly, he is the creator of Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha, and the Wolfram Language; the author of A New Kind of Science; and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. “Over the course of nearly four decades, he has been a pioneer in the development and application of computational thinking—and has been responsible for many discoveries, inventions and innovations in science, technology and business.” An abhundance of additional information about his life and work is provided at his website.

Adventures of a Computational Explorer is the latest of four books he has published thus far, at least that I know of, and it really is an adventure to explore with him the scope and depth of his experiences as well as the curiosity that drives them. Given all of his professional activities and personal interests, I have no idea how he finds the time and energy to write four books, indeed anything more complicated than a Post-it note. Like other polymaths, he seems to require less sleep and have more energy than the rest of us.

I struggled to decide how to frame my brief commentary and finally decided to emulate the farmer’s markets in or near the downtown area of most cities. Merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, here are three brief passages from among the hundreds that caught my eye  while tagging along with Wolfram throughout his lively and eloquent narrative:

o “There’s an analogy that I find useful. When I was working on the NKS [A New Kind of Science] book, I wanted to understand some things about the foundations of mathematics. In particular, I wanted to know just where the mathematics that we do lives within the universe of all mathematics. So I started enumerating axiom systems, and trying to discover where in the space of possible axiom systems our familiar areas of mathematics show up.

“One might think this was crazy — like searching for our universe in the space of possible universe. But NKS suggests it’s not. Because it suggests that systems with simple rules can have the richness of anything.” (Page 32)

o “Well, when I was 12, following British tradition, I went to a so-called public school that’s actually a private school. I went to the most famous such school — Eton — which was founded about 50 years before Columbus came to America. And oh so impressively, I even got the top scholarship among new kids in 1952 [smiley face].

“Yes, everyone wore tailcoats all the time, King’s Scholars, like me, wore gowns too — which provided excellent fain protection etc. I think I avoided annual Harry Potter [group photographs except one displayed].

“And back in those Latin-and-Greek-and-tailcoat days I had a sort of double life, because my real passion was doing physics. The summer when I turned 13 I put together a summary of particle physics…

“And I made the important meta-discovery that even if one was a kid, one could discover stuff. And I started just trying to answer questions about physics, either by finding answers in books, or by figuring them out myself. And by the time I was 15 I started publishing papers about physics. Yes, nobody asks you how old you are when you want to mail a paper in to a physics journal.” (Pages 117-118)

o “A lot of artificial stupidity is about failing to have ‘common sense’ about what an input might mean. Within some narrow domain of knowledge an interpretation might seem reasonable. But in a more general ‘common sense’ context, the interpretation is obviously absurd. And the point is tht as the domains of Wolfram/Alpha knowledge expand, they gradually fill out all the areas that we humans consider common sense, pushing out absurd ‘artificially stupid’ interpretations.” (Page 285)

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to Stephen Wolfram’s “adventures”  but I hope the excerpts arouse your own curiosity and encourage you to read and then re-read this personal epic.

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