Wolfram in 2008
|Awards||MacArthur Fellowship (1981)|
|Thesis||Some Topics in Theoretical High-Energy Physics (1980)|
|Doctoral advisor||Richard D. Field|
Stephen Wolfram (; born 29 August 1959) is a British-American computer scientist, physicist, and businessman. He is known for his work in computer science, mathematics, and in theoretical physics. In 2012, he was named an inaugural fellow of the American Mathematical Society.
As a businessman, he is the founder and CEO of the software company Wolfram Research where he worked as chief designer of Mathematica and the Wolfram Alpha answer engine. His recent work has been on knowledge-based programming, expanding and refining the programming language of Mathematica into what is now called the Wolfram Language.
Wolfram's father, Hugo Wolfram (1925-2015), a textile manufacturer born in Bochum, Germany, served as managing director of the Lurex Company, makers of the fabric Lurex. He was also the author of three novels. He emigrated to England in 1933. When World War II broke out, he left school at 15 and subsequently found it hard to get a job since he was regarded as an "enemy alien". As an adult, he took correspondence courses in philosophy and psychology.
Wolfram's mother, Sybil Wolfram (1931-1993; born Sybille Misch), originally from Berlin, Germany, was a Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Lady Margaret Hall at University of Oxford from 1964 to 1993. She published two books, Philosophical Logic: An Introduction (1989) and In-laws and Outlaws: Kinship and Marriage in England (1987). She was the translator of Claude Lévi-Strauss's La pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind), but later disavowed the translation. She was the daughter of criminologist and psychoanalyst Kate Friedlander (1902-1949), an expert on the subject of juvenile delinquency, and the physician Walter Misch (1889-1943) who, together, wrote Die vegetative Genese der neurotischen Angst und ihre medikamentöse Beseitigung. After the Reichstag fire in 1933, she emigrated from Berlin, Germany to England with her parents and Jewish psychoanalyst Paula Heimann (1899-1982).
Stephen's son, Christopher, began a degree course in mathematics and computer science in 2018. He is the co-inventor of a patented method and computing device for optically recognizing mathematical expressions. Christopher has presented and led workshops at several highly regarded conferences and events including South by Southwest Interactive, University of Oxford Summer School, and MIT Independent Activities Period. In 2016, he was awarded as Best Technical Advisor at the Raw Science Film Festival for his work on the movie, Arrival. He also works as a programmer for Wolfram Research.
Wolfram was educated at Eton College, but left prematurely in 1976. He entered St. John's College, Oxford at age 17 but found lectures "awful", and left in 1978 without graduating to attend the California Institute of Technology, the following year, where he received a PhD in particle physics on 19 November 1979 at age 20. Wolfram's thesis committee was composed of Richard Feynman, Peter Goldreich, Frank J. Sciulli and Steven Frautschi, and chaired by Richard D. Field.
Wolfram, at the age of 15, began research in applied quantum field theory and particle physics and published scientific papers. Topics included matter creation and annihilation, the fundamental interactions, elementary particles and their currents, hadronic and leptonic physics, and the parton model, published in professional peer-reviewed scientific journals including Nuclear Physics B, Australian Journal of Physics, Nuovo Cimento, and Physical Review D. Working independently, Wolfram published a widely cited paper on heavy quark production at age 18 and nine other papers, and continued research and to publish on particle physics into his early twenties. Wolfram's work with Geoffrey C. Fox on the theory of the strong interaction is still used in experimental particle physics.
A 1981 letter from Feynman to Gerald Freund giving reference for Wolfram for the MacArthur grant appears in Feynman's collected letters, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track. Following his PhD, Wolfram joined the faculty at Caltech and became the youngest recipient of the MacArthur Fellowships in 1981, at age 21.
In 1983, Wolfram left for the School of Natural Sciences of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he conducted research into cellular automata, mainly with computer simulations. He produced a series of papers systematically investigating the class of elementary cellular automata, conceiving the Wolfram code, a naming system for one-dimensional cellular automata, and a classification scheme for the complexity of their behaviour. He conjectured that the Rule 110 cellular automaton might be Turing complete, which was later proved correct.
A 1985 letter from Feynman to Wolfram also appears in Feynman's letters. In it, in response to Wolfram writing to him that he was thinking about creating some kind of institute where he might study complex systems, Feynman tells Wolfram, "You do not understand ordinary people," and advises him "find a way to do your research with as little contact with non-technical people as possible."
In the mid-1980s, Wolfram worked on simulations of physical processes (such as turbulent fluid flow) with cellular automata on the Connection Machine alongside Feynman and helped initiate the field of complex systems. In 1984, he was a participant in the Founding Workshops of the Santa Fe Institute, along with Nobel laureates Murray Gell-Mann, Manfred Eigen, and Philip Warren Anderson, and future laureate Frank Wilczek. In 1986, he founded the Center for Complex Systems Research (CCSR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and, in 1987, the journal Complex Systems. As the first journal in the field, Complex Systems has published many papers over the course of three decades. Complex Systems has developed a broad base of readers and contributors from academia, industry, government and the general public in over 50 countries around the world.
Wolfram led the development of the computer algebra system SMP (Symbolic Manipulation Program) in the Caltech physics department during 1979-1981. A dispute with the administration over the intellectual property rights regarding SMP--patents, copyright, and faculty involvement in commercial ventures--eventually caused him to resign from Caltech. SMP was further developed and marketed commercially by Inference Corp. of Los Angeles during 1983-1988.
In 1983, Wolfram joined the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. But by that time, he was no longer interested in particle physics. Instead, he began pursuing what he viewed as more creative areas -- specifically, cellular automata. Wolfram methodically analyzed sets of rules, developing a classification system that rated the complexity of various cellular automata -- all with the intention of clarifying the way we view complexity in the real world. In Wolfram's mind, studying the results of cellular-automata runs on the computer could unlock deep truths about the universe itself.
Wolfram's cellular-automata work came to be cited in more than 10,000 papers.
In 1986, Wolfram left the Institute for Advanced Study for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he founded their Center for Complex Systems Research and started to develop the computer algebra system Mathematica, which was first released on 23 June 1988, when he left academia. In 1987, he founded Wolfram Research which continues to develop and market the program.
Near the end of Sybil Wolfram's life, as part of her research for In-laws and Outlaws, she used her son's program Mathematica to analyze her data.
From 1992 to 2002, he worked on his controversial book A New Kind of Science, which presents an empirical study of simple computational systems. Additionally, it argues that for fundamental reasons these types of systems, rather than traditional mathematics, are needed to model and understand complexity in nature. Wolfram's conclusion is that the universe is digital in its nature, and runs on fundamental laws which can be described as simple programs. He predicts that a realization of this within the scientific communities will have a major and revolutionary influence on physics, chemistry and biology and the majority of the scientific areas in general, which is the reason for the book's title.
Since the release of the book in 2002, Wolfram has split his time between developing Mathematica and encouraging people to get involved with the subject matter of A New Kind of Science by giving talks, holding conferences, and starting a summer school devoted to the topic.
The Wolfram axiom is the result of a computer exploration in A New Kind of Science looking for the shortest single axiom equivalent to the axioms of Boolean algebra (or propositional calculus). The result of his search was an axiom with six NAND operations and three variables equivalent to Boolean algebra:
where the vertical bar represents the NAND logical operation (also known as the Sheffer stroke). The 25 candidates are precisely the set of Sheffer identities of length less or equal to 15 elements (excluding mirror images) that have no noncommutative models of size less or equal to 4 (variables).
In 2003, Wolfram hosted the first Wolfram Summer School at Brown University -- a program designed to provide educational and career opportunities by learning and conducting projects at the frontiers of science, technology, and innovation. In 2007, the summer school began being hosted by the University of Vermont at Burlington, with the exception of the year 2009 which was held at the Istituto di Scienza e Tecnologie dell'Informazione of the CNR in Pisa, Italy. In 2012, the program was held at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. Since 2013, the Wolfram Summer School has been held annually at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
In A New Kind of Science is the idea of exploring a new abstract universe: a computational universe of simple programs. In A New Kind of Science, Wolfram shows how simple programs in his computational universe capture the essence of the complexity - and beauty - of many systems in nature. This led to the creation of Wolfram Tones which works by taking simple programs from Wolfram's computational universe, applying music theory, and Wolfram Language algorithms to render them as music. Each program in effect defines a virtual world, with its own special story -- and Wolfram Tones captures it as a musical composition.
In A New Kind of Science, Wolfram found what was then the simplest known universal Turing machine -- with 2 states and 5 colors. However, he also did an extensive search of simpler Turing machines and in doing that, found a much simpler candidate for universality, a 2,3 Turing machine. On 14 May 2007, (the fifth anniversary of the publication of A New Kind of Science), Wolfram announced a $25,000 prize for the first person to determine whether or not the 2,3 Turing machine was actually universal or not, and could provide proof. Five months after the contest's announcement, an undergraduate student from Birmingham, UK, successfully found the 2,3 Turing machine to be universal and provided a 40-page paper to prove his findings.
In March 2009, Wolfram announced Wolfram|Alpha, an answer engine. Wolfram|Alpha later launched in May 2009, and a paid-for version with extra features launched on February 2012. The engine is based on natural language processing and a large library of algorithms, and answers queries using the approach described in A New Kind of Science. The application programming interface allows other applications to extend and enhance Alpha. Wolfram believes that as Wolfram Alpha comes into common use, "It will raise the level of scientific things that the average person can do."
In 2010, Wolfram co-founded Touchpress along with Theodore Gray, Max Whitby, and John Cromie. The company specialised in creating in-depth premium apps and games covering a wide range of educational subjects designed for children, parents, students, and educators. Since the launch, Touchpress has published more than 100 apps.
In March 2014, at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) event, Wolfram officially announced the Wolfram Language as a new general multi-paradigm programming language and currently better known as a multi-paradigm computational communication language. The documentation for the language was pre-released in October 2013 to coincide with the bundling of Mathematica and the Wolfram Language on every Raspberry Pi computer. While the Wolfram Language has existed for over 25 years as the primary programming language used in Mathematica, it was not officially named until 2014. Wolfram's son, Christopher Wolfram, appeared on the program of SXSW giving a live-coding demonstration using Wolfram Language and has blogged about Wolfram Language for Wolfram Research.
On 8 December 2015, Wolfram published the book "An Elementary Introduction to the Wolfram Language" to introduce people with no knowledge of programming to the Wolfram Language and the kind of computation it allows. The release of the second edition of the book coincided with a "CEO for hire" competition during the 2017 Collision tech conference.
Beginning in 2017, Wolfram began to live stream internal Wolfram Language development meetings. During these meetings, viewers are encouraged to submit questions and comments related to the development of the programming language. Viewers have been known to suggest new functions that they would like to see developed, name new functions, and help solve complex issues faced by Stephen and the Wolfram Research development team. These live streamed meetings can be viewed on Twitch, YouTube Live, and Facebook Live. All archived live streams can also be accessed on his personal website.
The significance data has on the products Wolfram creates transfers into his own life. He has an extensive log of personal analytics, including emails received and sent, keystrokes made, meetings and events attended, phone calls, even physical movement dating back to the 1980s. In the preface of A New Kind of Science, he noted that he recorded over one-hundred million keystrokes and one-hundred mouse miles. He has stated "[personal analytics] can give us a whole new dimension to experiencing our lives".