Radical physicist flatters computer fans

Stephen Wolfram takes the stage at Comdex, evangelizing a computing-centric view of the universe that might sit better with the tech industry than it has with other audiences.

LAS VEGAS--Physicist Stephen Wolfram took the stage Wednesday at the Comdex Fall 2002 trade show, evangelizing a computing-centric view of the universe that might sit better with the technology industry than it has with some other audiences.

Wolfram believes the universe is composed not of particles and waves, but of simple tiny programs. He believes these myriad programs, or algorithms, give rise to physical phenomena as fundamental as space and as complicated as human beings.

Scientists accustomed to explaining the universe's workings through mathematical equations haven't always received Wolfram's ideas warmly. But the computer industry, whose inventions allowed Wolfram to develop his philosophy, could be an easier sell. Wolfram elevates the seemingly mechanistic computing tasks to the central role in the origin and functioning of the cosmos.

Ultimately, technologists will be able to harness this constant computational churning for practical purposes, he predicted in remarks after the speech.

"There's a broader range of (computing) things, and they don't all have to be based on CMOS and gates," the technology that underlies today's microprocessors, he said. "Systems out there in nature are already doing computations as complex as the ones that correspond to human intelligence."

The speech, which delved into dizzying abstractions such as the curvature of space and the impossibility of simplifying some computing problems, was a departure from the usual Comdex fare. The trade show is devoted to the here and now of technology, but Wolfram encouraged his audience to look further into the future--not just two or three years, but a century. His ideas and others will eventually be important, he believes.

"What feeds the pipeline of technology is science," Wolfram said.

Wolfram believes his small programs should get equal or better billing than mathematical equations as a way to explain and understand the world. Simple programs can give rise to phenomena with tremendous complexity, such as turbulence in water, whereas equations excel only in areas where effects can be simplified and end results easily predicted.

"Out there in the computational world, even extremely simple rules can produce complicated behavior," he said.

There are some types of problems that are more likely to benefit from his way of thinking, he said. Economists are beginning to base their research on algorithms. Human vision likely uses algorithms that could be adopted in computer vision. Understanding the algorithms and rules that govern the formation of biological tissue could vastly improve transplants and medicine.

"What I think is going to be possible is to have computational models of biological cells in which all the possible processes going on will be represented by little programs," Wolfram said. Those new models could lead to the ability to design drugs and predict their effects, he said.

Wolfram's ideas got their start when he was trying to solve puzzles such as why asymmetry and structure should emerge in the universe. Now he believes he has an explanation: Simple rules and algorithms can produce unpredictable chaos. For cosmologists, he believes the next step is determining what those rules and algorithms are.

"One day, perhaps quite soon, we're really going to know the final fundamental rules of the universe," he predicted. "I think the rules will turn out to be quite simple. Determining how the universe is created from those rules turns out to be hard, hard work."

Wolfram's breakthrough came from thinking about "cellular automata," simple interactions between black or white cells and their neighbors in a grid. He tried out 256 different sets of rules by which the contents of one line of cells were determined by the contents of the cells immediately above.

The rules are simple, and most rules give rise to simple, repeating patterns. But some, most famously with No. 30, generate patches of unpredictable randomness. It was that mismatch between simple rules and complex results that piqued Wolfram's interest.

Wolframs's ideas are detailed exhaustively in his new book, "A New Kind of Science," which has been shaking up intellectual and scientific circles since its release earlier this year.

"In biology, where a lot of new stuff is happening, people are more receptive to something new," but researchers in slower-moving disciplines such as physics and mathematics haven't given Wolfram such a warm reception.

Wolfram also has been criticized because his book was self-published without using the formal peer-review process in which colleagues formally screen scientific works. The process is designed to catch errors and weed out bad ideas.

Wolfram acknowledged that his computer-derived ideas are to an extent a product of his time, just as people began to believe that Mars had canals around the same time that canals were being built all over the world.

But that doesn't mean his ideas are wrong. Pioneering astronomer Galileo thought of the universe as working like a clock, an analogy that proved very useful in understanding the cosmos, he said.