Adventures of a Computational Explorer, book review: Wolfram’s world, in 25 essays


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Adventures of a Computational Explorer • By Stephen Wolfram • Wolfram Media • 422 pages • ISBN: 978-1-57955-026-4 • $24.95

Stephen Wolfram has had the sort of career that The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper might identify with: PhD in particle physics at 20, youngest-ever MacArthur Fellow at 21. At 26, Wikipedia tells us, Richard Feynman advised him to find a way to do his research with as little contact with non-technical people as possible because he didn’t understand them, and Wolfram founded a company to do the work he wanted to do. 

In the years since, Wolfram Research has produced the computer language Mathematica and the computational knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha (which helps Bing and Siri answer questions), done widely-cited work on cellular automata, created Wolfram Language (“a general computational language for humans and computers”), and set scientists arguing by writing his 2002 book, A New Kind of Science.

In Adventures of a Computational Explorer, Wolfram has assembled rambling tales of a variety of his exploits: the progressive mathematical development of ‘Spikey’, the company’s logo; his work developing Wolfram Alpha; the art of naming functions; speculation about how quantum computing, AI, and the blockchain might usefully intersect; how to communicate generally with aliens; and the habits he has adopted to lead a productive life.

SEE: How to implement AI and machine learning (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Most of these pieces will have the most resonance for those working in computing. Probably the two most mainstream articles are those describing how Wolfram and his son Christopher developed the physics and alien language for the 2016 movie Arrival, and the lessons he learned in kindergarten. The movie was based on Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life and the language displayed on the movie screen is both elegant and mysterious. Christopher Wolfram put considerable effort into making sure the computer code that’s shown on-screen does what the script says it does, and Wolfram devised a theory for interstellar travel that he thought sounded plausible, even though there’s no evidence that it would work in practice.

Child’s play

In the kindergarten essay, you get a better sense of Wolfram’s personality when he tells you that as a child he figured out that he didn’t need to memorise addition and multiplication tables because he could find the answer any time he needed it through the strategic placement of two rulers on his desk. As a six-year-old walking to nursery school in England he realised the chip missing from the sun meant an eclipse, and started pointing it out to other kids, who didn’t see it. “Even if you notice something as obvious as a bit taken out of the side of the Sun,” he writes, “there’s no guarantee that you can convince anyone else that it’s there.” Following that, he writes, he also learned that even people who are sure they’re right may be wrong. 

Most of the book, despite its colloquial style, isn’t as easy to parse as that, as Wolfram is over-fond of technical detail. And yet, if there’s a thread through these pieces and Wolfram’s work more generally, that kindergarten story provides the clue: bridging communication gaps – whether they’re between humans and computers, humans and aliens, or just himself and other people.

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