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Customer Review

on May 20, 2002
If a million scientists worked on a million experiments for three hundred years, would they learn as much about the universe as Stephen Wolfram does by sitting at his computer for twenty years?
Apparently not, according to Stephen Wolfram.
I'm annoyed with Wolfram for forcing me to poke fun at him like this. I've been waiting for this book a long time, and I genuinely wanted to give it a thumbs up. Unfortunately, Wolfram has made that impossible.
I gave the book three stars, but in fact I consider it almost un-ratable. What do you do with a 1200-page tome that contains a wealth of substantive and fascinating results, but which is insists, at every turn, to draw over-blown and under-supported conclusions from them? I split the difference and gave it a middling rating, but that does not convey the deep ambivalence I feel toward this work.
Given Wolfram's reputation, I expected a certain amount of hubris, and even looked forward to it. Most scientists work hard to suppress the egotism that drives them, but Wolfram's ego is out there in the open. While this can be refreshing, what I found here left me dumbfounded. For Wolfram, all of scientific history is either prelude or footnote to his own work on 1-D cellular automata. On pages 12-16 he breezily cites other work in chaos theory, non-linear dynamics and complexity theory. At the end of the book, there are hundreds of pages of footnotes describing previous history as essentially one damn thing after another - a testament to all the people that didn't see the promised land, as he has.
Wolfram attempts to usurp all credit for the "computational perspective." Assertions such as "the discoveries in this book showing that simple rules can lead to complex behavior" are repeated to the point of exhaustion. But his attempt to shock us falls flat: if that idea was ever radical, it surely would not be considered so today. The other fields that Wolfram casually dismisses have provided strong indications of the power of this principle, as well as the idea that many diverse systems are computationally equivalent. An entire generation of physicists has grown up quite accustom to these notions.
Wolfram did make very substantial and important contributions to the study of complex systems in the early eighties. But he was not the only one, and those studies have not induced a wholesale revision of science. Despite what he would have us believe, the general concepts he espouses are not that radical. It would probably be more accurate to call them expressions of the modern scientific zeitgeist.
Meanwhile, some of Wolfram's specific claims are indeed very novel, but only because they are breathtakingly arrogant. Consider his comments on two famous scientific principles: The second law of thermodynamics, and evolution by means of natural selection. Both these principles date from the mid-nineteenth century. Both have incited considerable controversy, and both have withstood mountains of empirical observations from diverse sources. Wolfram, however, calls both of them into question. Why? Because he has done 1-D cellular automations simulations on his computer that he feels make them suspicious. How does Wolfram expect to be taken seriously when he makes such assertions almost non-chalantly?
Wolfram lacks any hint of balance in assessing the true place of his results. He admits to having been a recluse for years, and it shows. The desire to free oneself of the mainstream community, to allow oneself to be more creative, is understandable and healthy. But one concomitantly loses the critical faculty that derives from being part of a dynamic community. Though Wolfram will likely never see it, what he lost by pulling away from the world has substantially outweighed what he gained. Consequently, his loss has become ours. We did not get the much shorter, but wiser, book that lurks somewhere inside this one.
1,026 helpful votes
1,027 helpful votes
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