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Reviewing Wolfram

Compare and contrast:

The conclusion of the New York Times' review of A New Kind of Science:

[Stephen] Wolfram has earned some bragging rights. No one has contributed more seminally to this new way of thinking about the world. Certainly no one has worked so hard to produce such a beautiful book. It's too bad that more science isn't delivered this way.

The conclusion of the Economist's review:

Had it been shorter and better focused, Mr Wolfram's book would have been more convincing. It feels as if he wrote it in a vacuum, and the hand of an editor is sorely missed. In fairness, these faults are more irritating than decisive. Newton believed all sorts of odd things. A book with an interesting new theory does not have to be right for it to be worth reading, and Mr Wolfram's book certainly is that. It will provoke debate and experiment. Parts of it might one day be integrated into tested physical theory. Despite Mr Wolfram's bold attempt at a short-cut, that is how science of the old-fashioned kind works.

The Times reviewer, George Johnson, mostly seemed to like the pretty pictures. Still, he did better than his colleague Dennis Overbye, whose article amounts to little more than a hodge-podge of sound bites with little to no actual explanation. Take, for example:

"If the whole history of our universe can be obtained by following definite simple rules," Dr. Wolfram writes near the end of his book, "then at some level this history has the same kind of character as a construct such as the digit sequence of pi. And what this suggests is that it makes no more or less sense to talk about the meaning of phenomena in our universe than it does to talk about the meaning of phenomena in the digit sequence of pi."

This excerpt, fascinating as it may be (or may not be — given the lack of context, Wolfram could be saying almost anything), comes out of nowhere and leaves just as fast. Of course, whether or not physical phenomena "mean" anything — or whether we can even ask that question — won't be determined by any theory of physical science itself, but by some underlying philosophical understanding. So the quote has essentially nothing to do with anything central to the book itself; our writer is simply throwing it in because he thinks it sounds good.

How thoughtful of him.

June 16, 2002 9:45 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

What do you think of the book's ideas?


Posted by rob adams on June 17, 2002 3:28 PM

Well, not having read the book and being well removed from any serious scientific study, there isn't much I can say. (Wait a second, that's never stopped me before!) Mainly, I'm curious what the response from the scientific community will be. I don't see how this kind of result could really change the way science is done as dramatically as Wolfram suggests; while he has (it seems) demonstrated that we have a new, powerful tool in our arsenal, I don't see how he could effectively show that this is now the only tool we need.

That is, he hasn't (as I understand it) shown that equations don't have any predictive power; he's only shown that certain kinds of algorithms can very closely approximate physical phenomena. So the interesting question becomes, How much power do equations have, and how do they fit into a science that also employs these sorts of algorithms? Maybe equations play as small a role as Wolfram seems to think; my guess is it'll take a while to figure that out.

Got any thoughts, yourself?

Posted by M on June 18, 2002 12:55 AM

Having not read the book, either...

I think the whole notion of an equation is anithetical to what we know (so far) about how the Universe works. My point being that 1+1 doesn't always equal 2, in overly simple terms.


Posted by rob adams on June 18, 2002 11:38 AM

I meant to add -- Johnson has another piece in the Times: "What's So New in a Newfangled Science?" Just for the record.

Posted by M on June 21, 2002 4:38 PM

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