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Mathematics and computation

Mathematics and computation

Explorer versus salesman

23 Jun 2020
Taken from the June 2020 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.
Stephen Wolfram in July 2008

I need to start this review by saying that I loved the premise of this collection of essays by the physicist-turned-computer scientist Stephen Wolfram, who is chief executive of the Wolfram Group. Promising “surprising and engaging intellectual adventures”, the cover blurb of Adventures of a Computational Explorer teases “science consulting for a Hollywood movie, solving problems of AI ethics, hunting for the source of an unusual polyhedron, communicating with extraterrestrials” and even “finding the fundamental theory of physics and exploring the digits of pi”. What fun!

From supporting the production of the 2016 film Arrival by exploring how alien spacecraft might work, to considering how humanity might best leave behind a message for other civilizations (one option being the Wolfram computational language, of course), the opening chapters are perfectly pitched for the general reader. They’re all written in Wolfram’s compelling and, at its best, charmingly avuncular style. Some later chapters also deliver well on the advertised concept – covering topics such as computationally analysing the Facebook data of consenting Wolfram customers, and playfully imagining what kind of tech might be made by combining four current buzzwords (to form “Quantum Neural Blockchain AI”) .

Unfortunately, though, a key flaw of the book is that it lacks cohesion – perhaps as a result of being a compendium of seemingly loosely edited pre-existing essays. Repetition abounds, and I have no idea who the target audience for Adventures of a Computational Explorer is, with the popular accessibility of the initial chapters giving way to those that presume existing knowledge of specialist acronyms such as QCD (quantum chromodynamics), UDP (user datagram protocol) and TCP (transmission control protocol). A quick intro chapter to some of Wolfram’s key themes (computational irreducibility, cellular automata and the main Wolfram Group products) would also have provided a welcome explainer – especially given that, for Wolfram, the latter are the solution to almost all issues. If you must write a book that serves as stealth advertising for your software suites, you might as well explain what they each do, clearly, and in the first instance.

These issues might have been avoided with a stronger editorial hand – but one can imagine why this wasn’t delivered by the publisher, Wolfram Media. A more involved editor might also have reined in Wolfram’s predilection not only for promoting his products but also himself. This tendency is exhibited to such an extent that I eventually found it thoroughly off-putting. One might forgive the odd indulgence, but not multiple chapters devoted to, for example, his particular approaches to work and preferred methods of file organization.

At one point, Wolfram recapitulates his life through the lens of technology and artefacts from his considerable personal archive, beginning with a glowing elementary school report from 1967 – making for rather nauseating reading. For the reader not put off by this particular display of self-indulgence, the following chapter – “Things I learned in kindergarten” – goes further, relating tales of a six-year-old Wolfram, presumably still in knee-high socks, outsmarting adults and already realizing “obvious” things that his peers were simply incapable of.

This sentiment of superlativeness is Adventures of a Computational Explorer’s most unappealing leitmotif. Wolfram “independently came up with” data hashing functions at the age of 13 (p321); became a “card-carrying physicist” as a mere teenager; and gathered “what is probably one of the world’s largest collections of personal data” (p351). Wolfram also claims that when it comes to conceptualizing networks to represent physical space, many other physicists “haven’t quite reached the level of abstractness that [he is] at” (p29), and adds that his idiomatic ideas on how fundamental physics works just “aren’t yet mainstream” (p24).

If you must write a book that serves as stealth advertising for your software, you might as well explain what they each do clearly

The Wolfram language, meanwhile, is said to provide “a compressed representation…of the core content of our civilization” (p58), while mobile-phone-jingle-generating Wolfram Tones has “surpassed our species in musical output” (p159). While one has no doubt that many, if not all, of these assertions are accurate – Wolfram is clearly extraordinarily talented and accomplished – they need not all be expressed.

In other sections, Wolfram’s unabashed braggadocio takes on a more personal tone. The sixth chapter, originally written in 2016, pauses to take a seemingly random and unprofessional swipe at noted theoretical physicist Richard Feynman who, according to Wolfram, “came to a bunch of the meetings I had to discuss the design of the SMP [Symbolic Manipulation Program], offering various ideas – which I had to admit I considered hacky”, he writes. A later chapter reveals that Feynman was an examiner during Wolfram’s thesis defence in 1979, and the pair apparently had what Wolfram (euphemistically?) calls a “rather spirited discussion”. One can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a little grudge there. The rest of that chapter, meanwhile, is devoted to the task of demonstrating that Wolfram’s record of being the youngest person to graduate from the California University of Technology had not been superseded by a close contender.

This, really, is the crux of the problem with Adventures of a Computational Explorer. There was a great book to be cooked up here, but the meat of it has been completely drowned by the sauce of Wolfram’s unbridled and embarrassing self-promotion. Give this one a miss.

  • 2019 Wolfram Media, 430pp £16hb
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