Idea Makers: A book review by Bob Morris

Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People
Stephen Wolfram
Wolfram Media, Inc. (July 2017)

An intellectual feast to which you are cordially invited

Most of these personal perspectives are provided in the form of of what I call “snapshots” or mini-profiles; others such as those that focus on Ada Lovelace and on Srinivasa Ramanujan have more detailed discussion. All of them suggest the range and depth of Stephen Wolfram interests. He is a polymath, driven by what seems to be an insatiable curiosity. His mind reminds me of a Swiss Army knife.

As he explains in his Preface, “I’ve spent most of my life working hard to build the future with science and technology. But two of my other great interests are history and people. This book is a collection of essays I have written that indulge those interests. All of them are in the form of personal perspectives on people — describing from my point of view the stories of their lives and of the ideas they have created.”

Wolfram then observes, “My strategy is to keep on digging and getting information until things make sense to me, based on my knowledge of people and situations that are somehow similar to what I am studying. It’s certainly helped that in my own life I’ve seen all sorts of ideas and other things develop over the course of years — which has given me some intuition about how things work. And one of the important lessons of this is that however brilliant one may be, every idea is the result of some progression or path — often hard won.”

For example, consider this table-setting paragraph: “Ada Lovelace was born 200 years ago today [i.e. December 10, 2015]. To some she is a great hero in the history of computing; to others an overestimated minor figure. I’ve been curious for a long time what the real story is. And in preparation for her bicentennial, I decided to solve what for me has always been the ‘mystery of Ada'”.

Here’s another: Richard Feynman “loved doing physics. I think what he loved most was the process of it.  Of calculating. Of figuring things out. It didn’t seem to matter to him so much if what came out was big and important. Or esoteric and weird. What mattered to him was the process of finding it.”

Note: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (2005) is the title of his most popular book.

“He seemed to like best to spend his time figuring things out, and calculating. And he was a great calcuator.  All around perhaps the best human calculator there’s ever been.”

And another: “I never met Alan Turing; he died five years before I was born. But somehow I feel I know him well — not least because many of my own intellectual interests have had an almost eerie parallel with his.

“And by a strange coincidence, Mathematica’s ‘birthday’ (June 23, 1988) is aligned with Turing’s — so that today is not only the centenary of Turing’s birth, but also Mathematica’s 24th birthday.”

Note: Mathematica is a technical computing system created by Wolfram that spans most areas of technical computing.

And one more: “I always feel that one can appreciate people’s work better if one understands the people themselves better. And from talking to many people who knew him, I think I’ve gradually built up a decent picture of John von Neumann….

“He worked hard, often on many projects at once, and always seemed to have fun. In retrospect, he chose most of his topics remarkably well. He studied each of them with a definite practical mathematical style. And partly by being the first person applying serious mathematical methods in various areas, he was able to make important and unique contributions.”

As I worked my way through this book, I was again reminded of a 12th-century French monk, Bernard of Chartres, who once observed that he “stood atop the shoulders of giants.” Sharing the thoughts about these and other idea makers is probably the best introduction to Stephen Wolfram. They clearly indicate that he has broad shoulders. I urge you to join me as I stand among those atop his.

Be sure to check out Wolfram’s more recent book, Adventures of a Computational Explorer.

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