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Customer Review

3,048 of 3,180 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Emperor's New Kind of Clothes, February 28, 2003
This review is from: A New Kind of Science (Hardcover)
This review took almost one year. Unlike many previous referees (rank them by's "most helpful" feature) I read all 1197 pages including notes. Just to make sure I won't miss the odd novel insight hidden among a million trivial platitudes.
On page 27 Wolfram explains "probably the single most surprising discovery I have ever made:" a simple program can produce output that seems irregular and complex.
This has been known for six decades. Every computer science (CS) student knows the dovetailer, a very simple 2 line program that systematically lists and executes all possible programs for a universal computersuch as a Turing machine (TM). It computes all computable patterns, including all those in Wolfram's book, embodies the well-known limits of computability, and is basis of uncountable CS exercises.
Wolfram does know (page 1119) Minsky's very simple universal TMs from the 1960s. Using extensive simulations, he finds a slightly simpler one. New science? Small addition to old science. On page 675 we find a particularly simple cellular automaton (CA) and Matthew Cook's universality proof(?). This might be the most interesting chapter. It reflects that today's PCs are more powerful systematic searchers for simple rules than those of 40 years ago. No new paradigm though.
Was Wolfram at least first to view programs as potential explanations of everything? Nope. That was Zuse. Wolfram mentions him in exactly one line (page 1026): "Konrad Zuse suggested that [the universe] could be a continuous CA." This is totally misleading. Zuse's 1967 paper suggested the universe is DISCRETELY computable, possibly on a DISCRETE CA just like Wolfram's. Wolfram's causal networks (CA's with variable toplogy, chapter 9) will run on any universal CA a la Ulam & von Neumann & Conway & Zuse. Page 715 explains Wolfram's "key unifying idea" of the "principle of computational equivalence:" all processes can be viewed as computations. Well, that's exactly what Zuse wrote 3 decades ago.
Chapter 9 (2nd law of thermodynamics) elaborates (without reference)on Zuse's old insight that entropy cannot really increase in deterministically computed systems, although it often SEEMS to increase. Wolfram extends Zuse's work by a tiny margin, using today's more powerful computers to perform experiments as suggested in Zuse's 1969 book. I find it embarassing how Wolfram tries to suggest it was him who shifted a paradigm, not the legendary Zuse.
Some reviews cite Wolfram's previous reputation as a physicist and software entrepreneur, giving him the benefit of the doubt instead of immediately dismissing him as just another plagiator. Zuse's reputation is in a different league though: He built world's very first general purpose computers (1935-1941), while Wolfram is just one of many creators of useful software (Mathematica). Remarkably, in his history of computing (page 1107) Wolfram appears to try to diminuish Zuse's contributions by only mentioning Aiken's later 1944 machine.
On page 465 ff (and 505 ff on multiway systems) Wolfram asks whether there is a simple program that computes the universe. Here he sounds like Schmidhuber in his 1997 paper "A Computer Scientist's View of Life, the Universe, and Everything." Schmidhuber applied the above-mentioned simple dovetailer to all computable universes. His widely known writings come out on top when you google for "computable universes" etc, so Wolfram must have known them too, for he read an "immense number of articles books and web sites" (page xii) and executed "more than a hundred thousand mouse miles" (page xiv). He endorses Schmidhuber's "no-CA-but-TM approach" (page 486, no reference) but not his suggestion of using Levin's asymptotically optimal program searcher (1973) to find our universe's code.
On page 469 we are told that the simplest program for the data is the most probable one. No mention of the very science based on this ancient principle: Solomonoff's inductive inference theory (1960-1978); recent optimality results by Merhav & Feder & Hutter. Following Schmidhuber's "algorithmic theories of everything" (2000), short world-explaining programs are necessarily more likely, provided the world is sampled from a limit-computable prior distribution. Compare Li & Vitanyi's excellent 1997 textbook on Kolmogorov complexity.
On page 628 ff we find a lot of words on human thinking and short programs. As if this was novel! Wolfram seems totally unaware of Hutter's optimal universal rational agents (2001) based on simple programs a la Solomonoff & Kolmogorov & Levin & Chaitin. Wolfram suggests his simple programs will contribute to fine arts (page 11), neither mentioning existing, widely used, very short, fractal-based programs for computing realistic images of mountains and plants, nor the only existing art form explicitly based on simple programs: Schmidhuber's low-complexity art.
Wolfram talks a lot about reversible CAs but little about Edward Fredkin & Tom Toffoli who pioneered this field. He ignores Wheeler's "it from bit," Tegmark & Greenspan & Petrov & Marchal's papers, Moravec & Kurzweil's somewhat related books, and Greg Egan's fun SF on CA-based universes (Permutation City, 1995).
When the book came out some non-expert journalists hyped it without knowing its contents. Then cognoscenti had a look at it and recognized it as a rehash of old ideas, plus pretty pictures. And the reviews got worse and worse. As far as I can judge, positive reviews were written only by people without basic CS education and little knowledge of CS history. Some biologists and even a few physicists initially were impressed because to them it really seemed new. Maybe Wolfram's switch from physics to CS explains why he believes his thoughts are radical, not just reinventions of the wheel.
But he does know Goedel and Zuse and Turing. He must see that his own work is minor in comparison. Why does he desparately try to convince us otherwise? When I read Wolfram's first praise of the originality of his own ideas I just had to laugh. The tenth time was annoying. The hundredth time was boring. And that was my final feeling when I laid down this extremely repetitive book:exhaustion and boredom. In hindsight I know I could have saved my time. But at least I can warn others.
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Showing 1-10 of 25 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 21, 2007 12:12:04 AM PST
baronman11 says:
verey helpful. thanks!

Posted on May 21, 2007 10:09:01 AM PDT
Dami says:
My question is, without having to read all of the works of the CSci experts you've cited. What other book would be good for the scientifically inclined layperson? Large ego notwithstanding, his book is clear and communicates the above ideas to the non computer scientist.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 3, 2007 3:56:38 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 3, 2007 3:56:58 PM PDT
diza says:
I concur. meshing it all together, is a work for it self. when you REALLY get down to it, NO ONE is REALLY original.
people rephrase nad make incremental leaps.
if reading is book, as repetetive and long as it may be, is more quintessential than reading it's huge reference list, than it has a true added value.

Posted on Jun 11, 2007 11:05:52 PM PDT
ephemere says:
Great review. This is a terrible book, although I admit that I resorted to skimming the content after reading the first few hundred pages. This is what happens when a pathological ego refuses to accept peer review.

To respond to some other comments, nobody is saying that the book is completely devoid of valus. The problem is the outlandish hubris of it, starting with the title itself -- A NEW Kind of Science. The ideas inside are perhaps worth 50 pages. Certainly not 1200 pages, and let's not even mention the summer schools and the whole enterprise that Wolfram has tried to build around it.

I was pretty shocked and even saddened to read the book. I lost a lot of respect for Wolfram.

Posted on Nov 18, 2007 12:29:27 PM PST
Chaim says:
Thanks for plowing through the 1197 pages. Great review and critique.
Surely, the book still must have some reference value to novice - as a springboard to further inquiry.
And its probably a good door stopper.

Posted on Nov 19, 2007 2:06:53 AM PST
P. Santhanam says:
I find your review irritating in the same way that I've found the chunks of the book that I've read irritating. Even if it is not exactly your central thesis, your emphasis in terms of text volume seems to be on defending brilliant computer scientists who had similar or better ideas before. I found the start of the book similarly irritating in that an inordinate emphasis is placed on how new the ideas may or may not be, rather than the ideas themselves, accepting that the readers will decide their ultimate importance.

I concur with other comments above that the book seems clear and capable of communicating these ideas to non computer scientists. However, my main issue with the book is that, at least as far as I've gotten, Wolfram does not seem to offer as much concrete evidence for the value of these ideas in other fields, the existence of which he vehemently maintains. This seems to be the place where he is best suited to contribute, as his background, unlike the other computer scientists the reviewer has named, is elsewhere.

Also, just like everyone else, I wish he didn't try so hard to come off as a jerk. Couldn't he have just written the whole thing in the customary passive voice or something? On his website, the following justification is posted: "There is a common style of understated scientific writing to which I was once a devoted subscriber. But at some point I discovered that more significant results are usually incomprehensible if presented in this style. For unless one has a realistic understanding of how important something is, it is very difficult to place or absorb it." I think this line of reasoning is incorrect for two reasons. First, most people who are going to bother to read a text of this volume are going to have plenty of practice reading and understanding the aforementioned "common style of understated scientific writing." Second, he seems to be implicitly suggesting that there's no way to lead a reader to a particular conclusion about a result's importance other than direct statement of it as fact. It sounds like a cop-out for a lack of sufficiently convincing examples.

Posted on Jul 8, 2008 10:48:07 AM PDT
Ian K. says:
A fantastic review. One of the best I've seen.

I think the book has it's virtues, but the problem is that Wolfram's massive ego constantly gets in his way. He compares he book to Newton's work, claiming that it will be equally revolutionary. This review is a fantastic contribution that explains why this in not so. I have read some of the works mentioned in the review, but not all of them. I intend to follow on a number of the references.

Posted on Feb 17, 2009 1:35:06 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 17, 2009 1:40:19 PM PST
I think a synthesis is in order. Yes, Wolfram is incredibly egocentric and this was apparent in the preening text and, more importantly, in his failure to obtain meaningful peer review and input from his contemporaries or to appropriately acknowledge predecessors. But, he is also amazingly erudite and the book is awe-inspiring in the ground it covers. While many of the claims do need to be taken with a grain of salt (as they say about Mr. Ramirez; that's Manny being Manny), I think there are very few in any field who won't be stimulated by this thought-provoking (occasionally teeth-gnashing) opus.

Posted on Jun 30, 2009 7:22:30 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 30, 2009 7:23:46 AM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on May 19, 2010 1:02:10 PM PDT
M. Leger says:
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