Episode 41: Stephen Wolfram, Founder & CEO of Wolfram Research, Computing the Cosmos


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Stephen Wolfram, Founder & CEO of Wolfram Research, Creator of Mathematica, Wolfram Alpha, Author of A New Kind of Science, discusses computational science, his new Project to Find a Fundamental Theory of Physics, and more. Over the course of 4 decades, Stephen Wolfram has pioneered the development & application of computational thinking. He has been responsible for many discoveries, inventions & innovations in science, technology, and business. In this wide-ranging interview with Brian Keating @DrBrianKeating , Wolfram discusses his decades in-the-making Wolfram Physics Project, his career, his philosophy & approach to science, his hoped-for legacy, and questions from the audience including whether mathematical beauty matter at all, or is it just falsifiability?

We also discuss his books A New Kind of Science (2002), Idea Makers (2016) and Adventures of a Computational Explorer (2019). Show notes and resources available here

Topics discussed in this in-depth interview:

  • The Impact of Computers on his life 00:12:18
  • Prime Numbers 00:15:25
  • What he thinks he's good at doing 00:20:49
  • #WolframAlpha 00:21:30
  • The work he and his son did on creating a language for #ArrivalMovie 00:32:38:26
  • The first alien intelligence is really AI! 00:38:58
  • thoughts on #2001ASpaceOdyssey from his blog post 00:44:50
  • Cellular Automata & Complexity (1994) 00:54:50
  • Doom for the "Simulation Hypothesis" Thanks to the Physics Project 1:00:00
  • A New Kind of Science 01:14:54
  • Adventures of a Computational Explorer 02:06:39
  • How Steve Jobs convinced him to use 'Mathematica' instead of Wolfram Omega 02:32:02

Wolfram was educated at Eton, Oxford, and Caltech. He published his first scientific paper at the age of 15, and received his PhD in theoretical physics from Caltech at the age of 20. Wolfram's early scientific work was mainly in high-energy physics, quantum field theory & cosmology. Having started to use computers in 1973, Wolfram rapidly became a leader in the emerging field of scientific computing, and in 1979 he began the construction of SMP—the first modern computer algebra system—which he released commercially in 1981.

In recognition of his work in physics and computing, in 1981 Wolfram became the youngest recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Wolfram then set out on an ambitious new direction in science aimed at understanding the origins of complexity in nature. Wolfram's first key idea was to use computer experiments to study the behavior of simple computer programs known as cellular automata. In 1982, this allowed him to make a series of startling discoveries about the origins of complexity.

The papers Wolfram published quickly had a major impact, and laid the groundwork for the emerging field that Wolfram called complex systems research. In 1986 Wolfram founded the first journal in the field, Complex Systems, & its first research center. Then, after a highly successful career in academia—first at Caltech, then at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and finally as Professor of Physics, Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Illinois—Wolfram launched Wolfram Research, Inc. Wolfram began the development of Mathematica in late 1986. The first version of Mathematica was released on June 23, 1988, and was immediately hailed as a major advance in computing.

The popularity of Mathematica grew rapidly, and Wolfram Research became established as a world leader in the software industry. From its beginnings as a technical computing system, Mathematica has grown dramatically. It has been responsible for many important inventions and discoveries in a vast range of fields and industries, as well as being a central tool in the education of generations of students. Now, Wolfram has turned his attention to the development of a new fundamental theory of physics, wondering: ”What about our physical universe? Could it be operating according to simple rules?”

  • Find a pre-print version of here.
  • The Physics Project is described on his channel here.
  • Find Stephen Wolfram on the web https://www.wolframphysics.org & Twitter: twitter.com/stephen_wolfram
  • Find his TED talk here.
  • Find a downloadable worksheet for this episode here: http://www.mediafire.com/file/igp7jd3h8tnk5gy/Stephen_Wolfram.pdf/file.
  • Find Brian Keating on Twitter twitter.com/DrBrianKeating
  • Please subscribe, rate, & review the INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE Podcast on iTunes for a chance to win a copy of Stephen's latest book: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/into-the-impossible/id1169885840?mt=2