CrackpotteryStephen wolfram

A New Cuckoo Science

A New Cuckoo Science 4590791
Stephen Wolfram is a one-time precocious physicist who left academia to build his own company. He is the founder of Wolfram Research whose flagship product is Mathematica, a very sophisticated and useful software for doing all kinds of math. In 1992 Wolfram went into a self-imposed 10-year seclusion to write a book. The result was a 1200-page self-published tome called A New Kind of Science. In this article, I evaluate the “science” in A New Kind of Science, using some general and obvious characteristics of science (see  here for the list that I am using). It is next to impossible to address all the flaws, blunders, and swindles that are so prevalent in the book. I’ll just pick a few that stand out, especially those in its physics portion.

628x471 6600755Materiality and Observation in Wolfram’s Science

The new kind of “science” does not study material objects. It is based on Wolfram’s “pivotal discovery,” – a phrase that he repeats in every other sentence in the book! – on which he stumbled in 1984 in a computer experiment, which showed that complexity arises from simple programs. His “science” uses programming rules that are applied to automaton cells and networks to create complex pictures on computer screens.

Theories in Wolfram’s “Science”

Wolfram’s ultimate goal is to produce pictures of the objects of “traditional” science on his desktop. He considers every production of such pictures a triumph of his “science.” It is Wolfram’s way of “explaining” things – which is a necessary but not sufficient property of a scientific theory. For example, if his rules can produce a picture of a snowflake on his desktop, he thinks he has given an “explanation” of how snow flakes are formed, never mind that he steals a discovery of the traditional science – that a speck of ice at a point of a snowflake prevents the addition of more ice at that point – and uses it to write his picture-producing program. Since biological systems are complex, and since Wolfram’s “simple rules” can produce complex pictures, biology becomes his most favorite subject, especially because he can label the “genetic material” as programs, the holy grail of cellular automata. What does the “genetic material” do? According to Wolfram, it produces the visual features of the living things: the stripes of a zebra, the regular hexagons of a beehive, the polka dots on a fish, leaf patterns of plants, petals of flowers, …. What about evolution? After all, you can’t talk about biology without talking about evolution. What does evolution boil down to in Wolfram’s biology? Adaptation. And adaptation is reduced to trying to hide from predators, and this involves … you guessed it: protective patterns and pigmentation on skins and shells!

Bigbook 9246886Stephen Wolfram is a one-time precocious physicist who left academia to build his own company. He is the founder of Wolfram Research whose flagship product is Mathematica, a very sophisticated and useful software for doing all kinds of math. In 1992 Wolfram went into a self-imposed 10-year seclusion to write a book. The result was a 1200-page self-published tome called A New Kind of Science. In this article, I evaluate the “science” in A New Kind of Science, using some general and obvious characteristics of science (see  here for the list that I am using). It is next to impossible to address all the flaws, blunders, and swindles that are so prevalent in the book. I’ll just pick a few that stand out, especially those in its physics portion.

Materiality and Observation in Wolfram’s Science

The new kind of “science” does not study material objects. It is based on Wolfram’s “pivotal discovery,” – a phrase that he repeats in every other sentence in the book! – on which he stumbled in 1984 in a computer experiment, which showed that complexity arises from simple programs. His “science” uses programming rules that are applied to automaton cells and networks to create complex pictures on computer screens.

Theories in Wolfram’s “Science”

Wolfram’s ultimate goal is to produce pictures of the objects of “traditional” science on his desktop. He considers every production of such pictures a triumph of his “science.” It is Wolfram’s way of “explaining” things – which is a necessary but not sufficient property of a scientific theory. For example, if his rules can produce a picture of a snowflake on his desktop, he thinks he has given an “explanation” of how snow flakes are formed, never mind that he steals a discovery of the traditional science – that a speck of ice at a point of a snowflake prevents the addition of more ice at that point – and uses it to write his picture-producing program. Since biological systems are complex, and since Wolfram’s “simple rules” can produce complex pictures, biology becomes his most favorite subject, especially because he can label the “genetic material” as programs, the holy grail of cellular automata. What does the “genetic material” do? According to Wolfram, it produces the visual features of the living things: the stripes of a zebra, the regular hexagons of a beehive, the polka dots on a fish, leaf patterns of plants, petals of flowers, …. What about evolution? After all, you can’t talk about biology without talking about evolution. What does evolution boil down to in Wolfram’s biology? Adaptation. And adaptation is reduced to trying to hide from predators, and this involves … you guessed it: protective patterns and pigmentation on skins and shells! Wolfram devotes 113 pages of his book to Chapter 9 titled Fundamental Physics. You might think that the chapter is on atoms, nuclei, electrons, leptons, or quarks; or on exotic fundamental properties of matter like superconductivity and superfluidity; or on the origin of the universe, and the role of gravity, relativity, and quantum physics in its creation. No! Wolfram is interested only in those parts of physics which are best suited for pictorial representation, for example, reversibility. A blunder! Why reversibility? Because the second law of thermodynamics states that all macroscopic processes of nature are irreversible, and this is a consequence of the random motion of a large collection of atoms and molecules. But Wolfram is too awestruck by one of the cellular automata of his “universe” to pay attention to the real behavior of nature. As it turns out, his rule 37R does not show the desired randomness. So, he concludes that this rule simply does not obey the second law of thermodynamics. And if there are cellular automaton rules which do not obey the second law of thermodynamics, then the law must be wrong! After Wolfram throws away thermodynamics, what does he have to say about other branches of physics? The entire modern physics, the physics that really matters, the physics that has developed over the past 114 years, the physics that has been awarded over one hundred of the hundred thirteen Nobel Prizes, this physics gets a mere thirty pages of coverage! Special Relativity gets nine pages, Elementary Particle Physics gets five and a half pages, General Relativity gets seven and a half pages, and Quantum Physics gets eight pages. Another blunder! In his discussion of the nature of space and time, Wolfram makes the assumption that space and time are “fundamentally the same.” This is fundamentally wrong! It is precisely the difference between space and time that makes time travel impossible, even though in relativity theory time is considered the fourth dimension. A swindle! Out of the nine pages that Wolfram devotes to special relativity, the first five focus on setting up his causal network. This network has a fundamental length and a fundamental time interval. Wolfram steals the value of the speed of light from “traditional” physics and assumes that the ratio of his fundamental length and fundamental time interval is that speed. Why the speed of light? Because it plays a unique role in the theory of relativity. Then two pages later, he writes: “In the past, however, there seemed to be no underlying mechanism that could account for the validity of this basic theory [the fact that the speed of light is unique]. But now it turns out that the kind of discrete causal network models that I have described almost inevitably end up being able to do this.” These are the networks for whose ratio of the elemental length to elemental time Wolfram chose the speed of light! Isn’t this a classic example of circular argumentation; and if done knowingly, a swindle? Yet another blunder! At the top of page 521, Wolfram describes motion as follows: “To say that one is not moving means that one imagines one is in a sense sampling the same region of space throughout time. But if one is moving – say at a fixed speed – then this means that one imagines that the region of space one is sampling systematically shifts with time.” Thus, by sampling the underlying space alone and seeing if it shifts or not, one can tell whether one is moving or not. Now, the first lesson you learn in mechanics is that motion is not absolute!  The only meaningful description of motion is to say “A is moving relative to B”: you need two objects to define motion. There is no such thing as absolute motion. Yet in the physics of the “New Kind of Science,” Wolfram has managed to come up with precisely this kind of motion! N.B. This wrong description of motion is the only thing that Wolfram covers from mechanics: nothing about kinematics, forces, momenta, laws of motion, how these laws are applied to various objects in nature.

Predictions of Wolfram’s “Science”

One of the hallmarks of science, and its most determining litmus test, is prediction. Special relativity predicted E=mc2, general relativity predicted the bending of light in gravity and the expansion of the universe, quantum physics predicted lasers, antimatter, Higgs boson, and so on. All of these are quantitative, definite, and falsifiable predictions that could be confirmed or rejected experimentally. Wolfram claims to have created a new “science.” Does this “science” have predictions? I searched through those chapters of his book that had a promise of containing predictions, and found many statements that ever so slightly resembled predictions. Here is a sample: For natural selection (pages 388, 392, 395, 399):

  • “But in most cases I strongly suspect that it is comparatively coarse features that tend to determine the success of an organism.”
  • “… it is my strong suspicion that at least many of the visually most striking differences – associated for example with texture and pigmentation patterns – in the end have almost nothing to do with natural selection.”
  • But I strongly suspect that the vast majority of significant new features that appear in organisms are at least at first associated with fairly short underlying programs.”

For fundamental physics (p 434):

  • “… I am extremely optimistic that by using the ideas of this book the most fundamental problem of physics – and one of the ultimate problems of all of science – may finally be within sight of being solved.”

For the second law of thermodynamics (page 457):

  • Since Wolfram’s rule 37R does not follow the predictions of the second law of thermodynamics, “I strongly suspect that there are many systems in nature which behave in more or less the same way [as his rule 37R]. The Second Law is an important and quite general principle – but it is not universally valid.”

For models of the universe (pages 467-470):

  • I strongly suspect that in the underlying rule for our universe there will be no such [cellular automata] built-in structure. Rather, … my guess is that at the lowest level there will be certain patterns of connectivity.”
  • “And indeed my guess is that in terms of the kinds of pictures … that we have used in this book, the ultimate rule for the universe will turn out to look quite simple.”
  • I strongly suspect that the vast majority of physical laws discovered so far are not truly fundamental, but are instead merely emergent features of the large-scale behavior of some ultimate underlying rule.”

For the nature of space (p 474):

  • “Yet my suspicion is that a large part of the reason for this [the failure of the hypothesis that space and all the things that are inside it are made of the same stuff] is just the assumption that space is a perfect continuum – described by traditional mathematics.”

For quantum theory (page 538):

  • “And in fact it is my strong suspicion that the kinds of programs that I have discussed in the past few sections will actually in the end turn out to show many if not all the key features of quantum theory.”

Aren’t these “predictions” more like the last sermon of a cult leader to his disciples?

Communication of Discoveries of Wolfram’s “Science”

Wolfram locks himself up for ten years; goes through a hundred million keystrokes, more than a hundred mouse miles, a million lines of Mathematica input, and more than a million billion computer operations; discovers one breakthrough after another … hundreds of them; and finally self-publishes a 1200-page tome. What does he do after the publication? Does he attend conferences to inform his fellow scientists of hundreds of new discoveries that he has made, to share his ideas with them, perhaps get some new ideas from them, so that the discoveries are given a chance to multiply and grow, advancing human knowledge far beyond its current boundaries? No! He begins an advertising campaign. He reaches out to the popular media. He appears on TV shows. He uses his vast resources on the internet to publicize the book. … This is not the practice of a scientist. This is what business owners, politicians, entertainers, journalists, inventors, pop musicians, fiction writers, artists, and cult leaders do. This is also what rich crackpot scientists do!

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