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Skeptics on Stephen Wolfram at Caltech

Jason Spaceman Feb 6, 2003 11:29 PM
Posted in group:
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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Copyright 2003 Michael Shermer, Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine,
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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
publishing a full review essay of Wolfram's book, but for now I post
summary of the Caltech event, along with aerospace engineer Michael
impressions of the day.
A New Kind of Science?

David Naiditch

On February 1, physicist and computer scientist, Dr. Stephen Wolfram,
to a full house at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium about his grandiose
for a new and improved kind of science. After Wolfram spoke for about
hour, he answered questions from a panel of distinguished scientists,
then responded to questions from the audience.

Stephen Wolfram was a child prodigy. He received his doctoral degree
theoretical physics from Caltech when he was only 20, and was the
scientist to receive a MacArthur award for his work in physics and
science. Wolfram made a fortune developing Mathematica--a powerful
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
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
nearest neighbors. For instance, a square might change from white to
only if its nearest left neighbor is black and its right neighbor is
From such simple rules, intricate patterns can be generated, some of
are highly symmetric like snowflakes, others that appear random, and
that are self-similar fractals. Wolfram discovered that even the
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
caused a great deal of controversy. According to his publicist, the
print run of 50,000 copies sold out the first day, with over 200,000
sold at the time of this writing. The book has been reviewed in most
media venues (New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books,
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).
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
that scientists employ the types of rules used in cellular automata
related areas of computing.

In Wolfram's theory the universe is a giant computer. This computer
complexity through the repeated execution of simple rules. Instead of
equations to describe the results of nature's computer programs,
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
Steven Koonin, the moderator, is a full professor of physics at
Caltech and
received the Caltech Associated Students Teaching Award, the Humboldt
Scientist Award, and the E.O. Lawrence Award in Physics from the
of Energy. Chris Adami is faculty associate and director of the
Digital Life
Laboratory at Caltech, principle scientist in the Quantum Technologies
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
Information. David Stevenson has been a physics professor at Caltech
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
label a pseudoscientist, skeptics will notice that, despite his
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
process, (4) published his own book, (5) does not adequately
acknowledge his
predecessors, and (6) rejects a well-established theory of at least
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,
claims his work will shed light on a broad range of fundamental issues
have stymied scientists for ages, including the randomness found in
biological complexity, the nature of space-time, the possibility of a
of everything," and the scope and limitations of mathematics. Wolfram
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
hundreds of scientific papers, yet he did not bother to publish any of
material or present his ideas at any scientific conferences. Thus, any
critical feedback that might have improved his theory before it was
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
massive self-published tome, A New Kind of Science, coming in at 1,268
This is not because he could not get a publisher, or that no publisher
print such a large book. Readers may recall Stephen Jay Gould's magnum
The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, was released about the same time
Harvard University Press, topping out at 1,433 pages. Between the two,
bookstores shelves were sagging under the weight of Big Science.
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
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
references to be found in A New Kind of Science: no references to
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
many of Wolfram's ideas are not new. They can be found, for instance,
James Gleick's popular book, Chaos: Making a New Science, and in
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
that cellular automata, instead of being peripheral to science, should
central to the way science is practiced.

Sixth, Wolfram raised the hackles of the scientific panel as well as
audience when he rejected a well-established theory of a famous
none other than Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection.
Wolfram does not claim natural selection is totally without merit, he
claim it is insufficient to fully explain the complexity found in the
biological world. For instance, he claims that natural selection can
phenomena such the lengthening of bones, but not fundamental changes
to an
animal's morphology. Wolfram also claims that, contrary to popular
evolution is not very important to biologists.

Panel member Chris Adami, who researches how complexity arises from
selection, took exception to these claims. Adami pointed out that
evolution in general, and natural selection in particular, is of
importance to biologists; without it, biology does not make sense.
Adami also
argued that the kind of complexity biologists are most concerned with
different from the kind of complexity presented by Wolfram. Wolfram
tries to
explain complex patterns such as those found on seashells. According
Adami, such complexity is based on our perception and our inability to
perceive the simple rules that can generate such patterns. In
biologists are concerned with functional complexity that arises as
adapt to various environments, thereby increasing their chance of
and reproduction. Adami finds it inconceivable that the functional
of, say, a living cell, is due to a simple underlying rule. John
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
errors are introduced.

In addition to these criticisms, other objections were raised to
ideas. Steven Koonin pointed out that a paradigm shift cannot arise
simply by
asserting something is a paradigm shift. One must convince the
community that this description is warranted. To the contrary,
according to
David Stevenson, Wolfram fails to satisfy rules of what constitutes
science. Creating programs that generate images that look like things
in nature is not sufficient. One needs specific predictions. Wolfram
does not
offer any laboratory experiments or observations that could verify or
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
of mathematics rather than physics, employing calculus as an analogy.
showed how calculus provides a new way of doing science. Calculus
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
Not everything that is useful is explanatory. For example, David
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
resemble, for instance, snowflakes, he has explained how snowflakes
their complex symmetric structures. Panelists countered that such
are unwarranted. The resemblance does not, by itself, mean nature uses
to generate snowflake patterns. Wolfram needs to demonstrate how
physically instantiates the rules of cellular automata. Evidence is
needed to
show that the shape of snowflakes was produced by a physical mechanism
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
Wolfram's most original ideas--such as the attempt to incorporate
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
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
said, "it is not an approach that has much promise," while another
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
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
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
Huxley, as Darwin's bulldog, debated Bishop Wilberforce about the new
of Natural Selection? Perhaps Wolfram was his own bulldog:
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
with no soapy bishops among the Caltech panel of stellar scientists
questioned Wolfram. Of course, science isn't done by consensus, but
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
of science. Pythagoras was the name most in evidence on the island.
theorem regarded right triangles, you know. But, it was the legends of
Thales, Aristarchus, and Anaximander that was more to our taste. These
were the ancient equivalent to modern scientists. They pursued
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
rather close to that idea. He also had an apparent obsession with
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
between experimentalist and theoretician. One extreme is the
well manicured, well dressed, elegant, and usually arrogant,
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
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
useful observations and experiments are usually driven by some
variation of
what Michael Shermer calls "Darwin's dictum" where, as the sage of
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

Yes, we all know of the exceptions. A famous example being the
arrogant theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli who allegedly could
whole laboratories at a distance, just by his presence in their

But, the most famous theoretical scientist of the 20th century,
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
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,
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,
scientific practice owes much to Pythagoras. However, there is no
short cut
to the secrets of nature by mind alone, as the Pythagorians believed.
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
automata. Cellular automata has elements of a sort of perfect and
world. A world the Pythagorians really thought existed. It is a
mathematical creation, but it is not nature.

There is a deja vu about Stephen Wolfram, perhaps others have noticed
Like Wolfram, the American mathematician, Johnny von Neumann was a
pioneer in computer science as well as cellular automata. Like Wolfram
he was
incredibly bright, a child prodigy. (I checked some photos, they even
alike.). Von Neumann's good friend, the British mathematician and
Jacob Bronowski, kindly found fault with him and stated Johnny von
was in love with the aristocracy of the intellect." This was a sin
believed could destroy civilization. Like Galileo and Darwin, Wolfram
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
of the intellect" when I consider the Pythagoreans and their mystical
cut to know the world. The
aristocracy of the intellect, the arrogance about not getting your
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

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