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Customer Review

331 of 351 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars What it is, and why it disappoints, October 14, 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: A New Kind of Science (Hardcover)
This is a book of ruminations about cellular automata. It is chiefly concerned with the way that the state of a system evolves when deterministic rules are applied to it. The simplest system is a single point in either state 0 or state 1. The transition rule could be that the state "0" changes to state "1", and state "1" changes to state "0". That rule can be expressed as follows.
{1->0, 0->1}
If the system's initial state is 1, then the transition rule (repeatedly applied) yields the following alternating pattern of states.
For hundreds of pages the author discusses the behavior of 1-dimensional automata built from 3-cell transition rules. The 2^3=8 different states of a 3-cell cluster can be written in binary notation from 000 up to 111. The cell in the middle can transition to either of two binary states, yielding a total of 2^8=256 rules. Most rules lead to periodically repeating behaviors, with short periods like the alternating pattern shown above.
An exception is rule 30 (30 in binary is 00011110; these bits the right-hand-side values for the 8 transitions).
rule 30:
{ 111->0, 110->0, 101->0, 100->1, 011->1, 010->1, 001->1, 000->0 }
When applied to an initial state of a single 1 surrounded by 0's, rule 30 generates the following pattern (developing downward from the top row). The array can be displayed as a bitmap of black and white pixels, producing a visualization of the evolving state of the horizontal rows.
What excites many people about such rules (and about replacement grammars in general) is that applying the rule to an input string produces new strings whose characteristics are hard to predict. Plus, the patterns in the resulting visualization look pretty cool and are suggestive of all sorts of things found in nature. It's very easy to write computer code that will generate the patterns based on input rules, so anybody can play the game.
Lots of people have implemented cellular automata and been fascinated that the behavior is so sensitive to the choice of input string and transition rules. Watching the patterns unfold is a bit like playing the slot machines. So many possibilities. So fun to watch. Addictive to play. Great to show your friends. A meme that keeps on meming. Search the Web for "one-dimensional cellular automata" and "applet" and you will find examples that you can run in your browser.
What bothers many readers about the book is that it is like an undergraduate honors project gone haywire. Page after page of printouts of these things. Thousands of them. And with endless streams of the impressions they made on the author. "My Daily Journal of Cellular Automata" would have been a fair title. Wolfram's inflated sense of their importance, and his own, is evident in the copyright statement:
Discoveries and ideas introduced in this book, whether presented at length or not, and the legal rights and goodwill associated with them, represent valuable property of Stephen Wolfram ..
Thus he lays claim to every cellular automaton and any application thereof. Pretty annoying, coming from someone arriving late to the automaton party.
He concludes of the book proper (pp. 844-845, just before his 350 additional pages of "notes") that
.. building on what I have discovered in this book .. there is nothing fundamentally special about us. .. For my discoveries imply that whether the underlying system is a human brain, a turbulent fluid, or a cellular automaton, the behavior it exhibits will correspond to a computation of equivalent sophistication. .. [W]hat my discoveries and the Principle of Computational Equivalence now show is that .. cellular automata can achieve exactly the same level of computational sophistication as anything else.
Wolfram discovery/epiphany appears to be that all algorithms can be computed by a simple model. An example of such a model, called the "Turing machine", is taught every semester to computer science students worldwide.
It excites many people that the physical world is inherently computable, allowing computational simulations to have predictive value. It is bizarre to read Wolfram represent that he is the author of this insight.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 31, 2009 11:11:15 PM PDT
" undergraduate honors project gone haywire."

Without a doubt the best, most succinct description of this pile that I've ever read!

Wolfram is a truly tragic figure--such early promise defeated so thoroughly by overriding ego. One can only sigh in sadness.

Posted on Oct 19, 2012 5:37:33 PM PDT
Natalie says:
"My Daily Journal of Cellular Automata" -- good one! LOL!

Posted on Sep 9, 2015 12:49:16 PM PDT
Angie says:
That literary devices, simile and metaphor in your case, have so much effective power, demonstrates it best in your review.
I am referring to the undergrad project and the daily journal ones.
it was satisfying to me without having any personal experience with the book.
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