This is from yesterday's E-Skeptic mailing. It is about a recent

speech and Q&A session held at Caltech with Stephen Wolfram, author of

'A New Kind of Science'. The evolution related stuff is further down

the page. I haven't read Wolfram's book, but apparently Wolfram

doesn't think evolution is that important to biology.

J. Spaceman

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E-SKEPTIC FOR FEBRUARY 6, 2003

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------------------------

SKEPTICS ON STEPHEN WOLFRAM AT CALTECH

Last Saturday, February 1, 2003, Dr. Stephen Wolfram, author of the

controversial book A New Kind of Science, spoke at Caltech to a packed

audience of over a thousand people, who came to see and hear the

subject of

so much scientific press, as well as what three world-class scientists

had to

say about it.

In an upcoming issue of Skeptic computer scientist David Naiditch will

be

publishing a full review essay of Wolfram's book, but for now I post

his

summary of the Caltech event, along with aerospace engineer Michael

Gilmore's

impressions of the day.

-----------------------

A New Kind of Science?

David Naiditch

On February 1, physicist and computer scientist, Dr. Stephen Wolfram,

spoke

to a full house at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium about his grandiose

proposal

for a new and improved kind of science. After Wolfram spoke for about

an

hour, he answered questions from a panel of distinguished scientists,

and

then responded to questions from the audience.

Stephen Wolfram was a child prodigy. He received his doctoral degree

in

theoretical physics from Caltech when he was only 20, and was the

youngest

scientist to receive a MacArthur award for his work in physics and

computer

science. Wolfram made a fortune developing Mathematica--a powerful

software

program that has become a standard for technical computing. Then,

staring in

the early 1980s, he began working on cellular automata.

To understand cellular automata, imagine a grid of squares where each

square

can either be black or white. From an initial state of a few black

squares, a

simple rule is applied over and over again. This rule determines

whether or

not a square changes its color, and is based on the color of the

square's

nearest neighbors. For instance, a square might change from white to

black

only if its nearest left neighbor is black and its right neighbor is

white.

From such simple rules, intricate patterns can be generated, some of

which

are highly symmetric like snowflakes, others that appear random, and

others

that are self-similar fractals. Wolfram discovered that even the

simplest

programs yield patterns of astonishing complexity.

In May 2002, Wolfram published his book, A New Kind of Science, which

for the

first time revealed to the world the results of his research on cellar

automata and related fields. Wolfram's book was an immediate success

and

caused a great deal of controversy. According to his publicist, the

initial

print run of 50,000 copies sold out the first day, with over 200,000

copies

sold at the time of this writing. The book has been reviewed in most

major

media venues (New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books,

Science,

Nature, etc.) and Wolfram has been featured in such national

publications as

Time and Newsweek.

Wolfram proposed a new way of doing science. For hundreds of years,

scientists have successfully used mathematical equations that show how

various entities are connected. For instance, Newton's equation, F=ma,

shows us how force (F) is related to mass (m) and acceleration (a).

The

problem with this approach is that equations fail to describe complex

phenomena we see all around us, such as the turbulence of boiling

water or

the changing weather. To describe such complex phenomena, Wolfram

proposes

that scientists employ the types of rules used in cellular automata

and

related areas of computing.

In Wolfram's theory the universe is a giant computer. This computer

produces

complexity through the repeated execution of simple rules. Instead of

using

equations to describe the results of nature's computer programs,

Wolfram

tells us to examine the programs themselves.

At the Caltech event Wolfram's ideas were challenged by a stellar

panel of

scientists: Steven Koonin, Chris Adami, John Preskill, and David

Stevenson.

Steven Koonin, the moderator, is a full professor of physics at

Caltech and

received the Caltech Associated Students Teaching Award, the Humboldt

Senior

Scientist Award, and the E.O. Lawrence Award in Physics from the

Department

of Energy. Chris Adami is faculty associate and director of the

Digital Life

Laboratory at Caltech, principle scientist in the Quantum Technologies

Group

at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and author of the textbook

Introduction to

Artificial Life. John Preskill is the John D. MacArthur Professor of

Theoretical Physics at Caltech and the director of the Institute for

Quantum

Information. David Stevenson has been a physics professor at Caltech

since

1980 and is the recipient of a Fellowship of the Royal Society of

London and

the Feynman teaching prize.

Although it is clear that Wolfram is no crank, not someone skeptics

would

label a pseudoscientist, skeptics will notice that, despite his

flawless

credentials, staggering intelligence, and depth of knowledge, Wolfram

possesses many attributes of a pseudoscientist: (1) he makes grandiose

claims, (2) works in isolation, (3) did not go through the normal

peer-review

process, (4) published his own book, (5) does not adequately

acknowledge his

predecessors, and (6) rejects a well-established theory of at least

one

famous scientist.

First, throughout his lecture Wolfram made the grandiose claim that

his work

amounts to a "paradigm shift" of how we do science. Furthermore,

Wolfram

claims his work will shed light on a broad range of fundamental issues

that

have stymied scientists for ages, including the randomness found in

nature,

biological complexity, the nature of space-time, the possibility of a

"theory

of everything," and the scope and limitations of mathematics. Wolfram

even

claims his insights can be used to tackle the ancient paradoxes of

free will

and determinism, and the nature of intelligence.

Second, like so many pseudoscientists on the fringe, Wolfram did his

work in

isolation for 20 years. Although he was running a company that

required he

interact with employees and customers (many of whom are scientists),

his work

on cellular automata was kept largely to himself.

Third, Wolfram admitted that he had enough material during this time

for

hundreds of scientific papers, yet he did not bother to publish any of

the

material or present his ideas at any scientific conferences. Thus, any

critical feedback that might have improved his theory before it was

cemented

in inky stone was eschewed, making change at this point in the

development of

his theory much more unlikely.

Fourth, in May 2002 Wolfram revealed his work for the first time in

his

massive self-published tome, A New Kind of Science, coming in at 1,268

pages.

This is not because he could not get a publisher, or that no publisher

would

print such a large book. Readers may recall Stephen Jay Gould's magnum

opus,

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, was released about the same time

by

Harvard University Press, topping out at 1,433 pages. Between the two,

bookstores shelves were sagging under the weight of Big Science.

Wolfram

self-published because he wanted to maintain tight control over the

production and distribution of his life's work.

Fifth, not only did Wolfram work alone, during his Caltech lecture not

once

did he acknowledge the work of other scientists. In addition,

throughout the

850 pages of general text, and 350 pages of notes, there are no

traditional

references to be found in A New Kind of Science: no references to

scientific

papers, no citations of books related to the topic, and no

bibliography. In

fact, the notes section consists mostly of further commentary on his

own work

earlier in the book, with occasional reference to other scientists and

scholars without actually providing citations to their work. In actual

fact,

many of Wolfram's ideas are not new. They can be found, for instance,

in

James Gleick's popular book, Chaos: Making a New Science, and in

Robert

Wright's book, Three Scientists and Their Gods, which describes the

work of

Edward Fredkin. Fredkin, like Wolfram, believes that the universe is a

digital computer. What is new in A New Kind of Science is Wolfram's

claim

that cellular automata, instead of being peripheral to science, should

be

central to the way science is practiced.

Sixth, Wolfram raised the hackles of the scientific panel as well as

the

audience when he rejected a well-established theory of a famous

scientist:

none other than Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection.

Although

Wolfram does not claim natural selection is totally without merit, he

does

claim it is insufficient to fully explain the complexity found in the

biological world. For instance, he claims that natural selection can

explain

phenomena such the lengthening of bones, but not fundamental changes

to an

animal's morphology. Wolfram also claims that, contrary to popular

belief,

evolution is not very important to biologists.

Panel member Chris Adami, who researches how complexity arises from

natural

selection, took exception to these claims. Adami pointed out that

Darwinian

evolution in general, and natural selection in particular, is of

fundamental

importance to biologists; without it, biology does not make sense.

Adami also

argued that the kind of complexity biologists are most concerned with

is

different from the kind of complexity presented by Wolfram. Wolfram

tries to

explain complex patterns such as those found on seashells. According

to

Adami, such complexity is based on our perception and our inability to

perceive the simple rules that can generate such patterns. In

contrast,

biologists are concerned with functional complexity that arises as

organisms

adapt to various environments, thereby increasing their chance of

survival

and reproduction. Adami finds it inconceivable that the functional

complexity

of, say, a living cell, is due to a simple underlying rule. John

Preskill

also challenged Wolfram on this point, noting that cellular automata

are very

fragile. Any "mutation" to cellular automata is disastrous. Biological

systems, on the other hand, must be stable even when mutations and

other

errors are introduced.

In addition to these criticisms, other objections were raised to

Wolfram's

ideas. Steven Koonin pointed out that a paradigm shift cannot arise

simply by

asserting something is a paradigm shift. One must convince the

scientific

community that this description is warranted. To the contrary,

according to

David Stevenson, Wolfram fails to satisfy rules of what constitutes

good

science. Creating programs that generate images that look like things

found

in nature is not sufficient. One needs specific predictions. Wolfram

does not

offer any laboratory experiments or observations that could verify or

falsify

his grand claims.

Wolfram responded that the requirement of falsifiability does not

apply to

mathematics or computer science. He argued that his claims have the

character

of mathematics rather than physics, employing calculus as an analogy.

Newton=

showed how calculus provides a new way of doing science. Calculus

itself,

however, is not tested to determine whether it is true or false. Its

justification is that it works. The panel rebutted that if this

analogy is

true, then Wolfram is just proposing a new kind of computational

method, not

a new kind of science.

Objections were also raised that Wolfram's theory lacks explanatory

power.

Not everything that is useful is explanatory. For example, David

Stevenson

explained that Feynman diagrams are very useful and can provide

answers to

problems of quantum mechanics much faster than answers obtained by

computational methods. However, Feynman diagrams do not provide an

explanation or deeper understanding of quantum phenomena. Again,

it was emphasized that Wolfram seems to be offering a new kind of

computational tool, not a new kind of science.

According to Wolfram, by generating patterns on the computer screen

that

resemble, for instance, snowflakes, he has explained how snowflakes

acquire

their complex symmetric structures. Panelists countered that such

inferences

are unwarranted. The resemblance does not, by itself, mean nature uses

rules

to generate snowflake patterns. Wolfram needs to demonstrate how

nature

physically instantiates the rules of cellular automata. Evidence is

needed to

show that the shape of snowflakes was produced by a physical mechanism

whose

behavior resembles the rules used by a computer.

John Preskill observed that few of the ideas presented in Wolfram's

book are

concrete enough to be usable by research scientists. Wolfram's answer

that no

experts in his field yet exist, does not address the problem. For

example,

Wolfram's most original ideas--such as the attempt to incorporate

quantum

theory and gravity using random network models and path

independence--are too

speculative to be of use to scientists.

At the end of the Caltech program the moderator, Steven Koonin, asked

the

panelists to predict whether in 20 years Wolfram's A New Kind of

Science will

be viewed as a paradigm shift. The unanimous answer was "no." One

panelist

said, "it is not an approach that has much promise," while another

noted

that Wolfram's ideas are the "Emperors New Clothes." Wolfram tried to

get in

the last word by stating that this reaction from the panelists is just

what

one would expect from a paradigm shift. But Steven Koonin rejoined

that this

is also just what one would expect if Wolfram's ideas did not amount

to a

paradigm shift. Ultimately, time will tell who is right.

---------------------

Of Triangles and Bulldogs

Is Stephen Wolfram a Modern Pythagoras?

By Michael Gilmore

"I would rather understand one cause than be King of Persia."

--Democritus of Abdera

It was a warm day in Pasadena and a full house at Caltech's Beckman

auditorium Saturday, February 1.

In a swift and densely packed hour, Stephen Wolfram presented ideas

from his

1268 page best seller, A New Kind of Science, that deals with the

mathematical world of cellular automata It was a fine lecture, but was

it

science? Is this the beginning of a new paradigm shift, as Wolfram so

repeatedly and confidently claimed?

I first wondered if this Saturday could be like that hot Oxford day

when

Huxley, as Darwin's bulldog, debated Bishop Wilberforce about the new

Theory

of Natural Selection? Perhaps Wolfram was his own bulldog:

exceptionally

bright, eloquent, and confident, with a British accent to boot. But

this was

a lonely bulldog, and he had no defenders. It was four to one in this

debate,

with no soapy bishops among the Caltech panel of stellar scientists

who

questioned Wolfram. Of course, science isn't done by consensus, but

then

Wolfram was no Darwin. At least not yet. He had made no new

predictions about

nature that the scientists sitting quietly in the auditorium could

then go

forth and check by microscope, cyclotron, or telescope.

As Wolfram talked, I remembered a hot summer day on the island of

Samos. On

an Ionian trek, with my son Tyson, we had sailed to Samos to find the

muses

of science. Pythagoras was the name most in evidence on the island.

His

theorem regarded right triangles, you know. But, it was the legends of

Thales, Aristarchus, and Anaximander that was more to our taste. These

guys

were the ancient equivalent to modern scientists. They pursued

observation

and experiment. They got their hands dirty and used their brains.

But Pythagoras wasn't one of them. He professed that nature could be

understood by pure thought alone. Wolfram seemed to be pitching

something

rather close to that idea. He also had an apparent obsession with

triangles,

manifest throughout his magnum opus.

I think the ancient rift between the Ionian experimentalists and the

Pythagorian mystics gives some insight to the Wolfram question.

One modern manifestation of this ancient rift, is the traditional

separation

between experimentalist and theoretician. One extreme is the

stereotypical

well manicured, well dressed, elegant, and usually arrogant,

theoretician,

who never has grease under the nail or eye to the microscope, yet

knows all

the answers by thought alone.

Of course there is also the scientist who has gathered reams of

observations

in the outback, but has never had a philosophical thought in his or

her life.

Good science is, of course, neither of these stereotypes. Those who

make

useful observations and experiments are usually driven by some

variation of

what Michael Shermer calls "Darwin's dictum" where, as the sage of

Down

said, "all observation must be fore or against some view if it is to

be of

any service." Good theoreticians are informed by the latest

observations and

experimental results. It is no accident that Galileo, Newton, Halley,

Faraday, and Darwin were good with their hands and great

experimentalists.

Yes, we all know of the exceptions. A famous example being the

delightfully

arrogant theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli who allegedly could

destroy

whole laboratories at a distance, just by his presence in their

vicinity!

But, the most famous theoretical scientist of the 20th century,

Einstein,

remarked how much he enjoyed the laboratory experience and was bored

with the

lecture hall. Feynman's self constructed youthful laboratory was his

joy, and

Enrico Fermi's world class reputation was grounded in both his

theoretical

and laboratory talent.

We should keep these examples in mind when we sit at our computer

screens day

after day. We must remember to pick ourselves up, roll up our sleeves,

tinker

in the lab, explore the world, and observe nature.

The theorem of the sums of the squares of the sides of a right

triangle may

not have been original with Pythagoras. But the method of mathematical

deduction for a general proof was his. Today's mathematical argument,

and

scientific practice owes much to Pythagoras. However, there is no

short cut

to the secrets of nature by mind alone, as the Pythagorians believed.

At

least not yet.

Scientists today depend on Stephen Wolfram's Mathematica, which has

become a

legendary standard program for technical computing throughout the

world. This

software allowed Wolfram to explore deeply the mathematical world of

cellular

automata. Cellular automata has elements of a sort of perfect and

mystical

world. A world the Pythagorians really thought existed. It is a

beautiful

mathematical creation, but it is not nature.

There is a deja vu about Stephen Wolfram, perhaps others have noticed

it.

Like Wolfram, the American mathematician, Johnny von Neumann was a

great

pioneer in computer science as well as cellular automata. Like Wolfram

he was

incredibly bright, a child prodigy. (I checked some photos, they even

look

alike.). Von Neumann's good friend, the British mathematician and

polymath,

Jacob Bronowski, kindly found fault with him and stated Johnny von

Neumann

was in love with the aristocracy of the intellect." This was a sin

Bronowski

believed could destroy civilization. Like Galileo and Darwin, Wolfram

has

written a popular book. In doing so he isn't practicing the sin

Bronowski had

in mind regarding von Neumann. But, I can't help thinking of the

"aristocracy

of the intellect" when I consider the Pythagoreans and their mystical

short

cut to know the world. The

aristocracy of the intellect, the arrogance about not getting your

hands

dirty, and about having some sort of absolute knowledge with no test

in the

world, are all closely related. And they are a barrier to doing good

science.

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