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Surprising Science

Stephen Wolfram’s Search for the Computer Program That Governs the Universe

Can we simplify the universe into a single computer program? That is the question physicist, programmer, businessman, and all-around Renaissance man Stephen Wolfram has dedicated his career to solving. “We look at the universe. We look at physics. We look at nature. The question is, is there ultimately some simple rule that determines everything that happens in our universe? Is there some ultimate theory of physics that will allow to sort of hold in our hand some specification of everything about our universe and everything about the history of our universe?”

In his Big Think interview, Wolfram tells us that physicists have tried for centuries to explain the universe using mathematics. “If we look back at sort of the history of science about 300 years ago there was this sort of big idea, which was we can take these things that we see in the natural world and we can start to describe them not just in terms of sort of philosophy and logic, but by using mathematics.” But Wolfram envisions a new kind of science—one based not on mathematics but on computer science. And in his work he set about imagining what kind of programs might govern the computational universe. “What you find is that even very, very simple programs, [can] do immensely complicated kinds of things…it’s really easy to find simple programs that kind of effortlessly produce immense complexity in their behavior,” he explains.

Wolfram also questions whether mathematics is something that is built into the formal logic of the universe of whether its origin is man-made. “Mathematics is a field of inquiry where one is starting from a collection of axioms and then deriving all these theorems of what is true about mathematics,” he says. “The complete axioms for all the mathematics that has been done in the last however many years fit on a page or two… From those axioms about three million or so theorems have been derived in the history of mathematics and the question though is why those axioms? Why not other axioms?” Mathematics, he concludes, is very much a human artifact “not something that is a necessary feature of the way that formal systems of the universe work.”

As the head of Wolfram Research, he is also responsible for the revolutionary new search engine Wolfram Alpha, which is designed to compute questions: “If you ask a suitable scientist you can figure out something like where will the sun be at a particular time of day at a particular place on the earth. If they can do their physics correctly they’ll eventually be able to figure out the answer or if you have this particular level of some substance in blood what percentile of the distribution does this correspond to or what does that mean for the probability of this or that thing—these are things which in principle can be computed if you find the right expert. What we’ve tried to do is to actually accumulate all of the algorithms necessary to do those computations [automatically],” he says.


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