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Simple rules can produce complex behavior, physicist Wolfram says

Wolfram (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

The keys to understanding natural phenomena could lie in simple rules and models, physicist Stephen Wolfram said in a speech during which he promoted his controversial and popular new book, “A New Kind of Science.”

“Simple rules can produce fairly complicated behavior,” said Wolfram during the Oct. 8 talk at the Rackham Building auditorium, which was hosted by the Center for the Study of Complex Systems. “That has some very important implications.”

Wolfram discussed cellular automata, grids of black and white that are governed by simple nonmathematical rules and which he thinks can be made to do anything a real computer can do. Much of his book is devoted to these 256 cellular automata, which form the basis for his “new science.”

The ability of simple systems to perform complex functions and to explain natural phenomena shows that science has been going in the wrong direction, he said. His view is that nature’s rules actually are quite simple, compared with the complexity of higher-level math.

Wolfram also discussed the Principle of Computational Equivalence, an idea presented in his book, which states that all systems that exhibit more than simple behavior have equivalent computational powers. In theory, this means that even some processes with a low level of complexity can have the sophistication to perform the same computations as, say, a powerful computer.

The prominence of the book returns Wolfram to the spotlight in the scientific world. He published his first scientific paper at age 15 and received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics by age 20. In 1981, he became the youngest recipient of a MacArthur Prize Fellowship. He founded Wolfram Research Inc. in 1988 to market his Mathematica program.

Wolfram said he was pleasantly surprised by the popularity of the book, which he said did not fit the conventions of the publishing world. “In the end,” he said, “I decided it was easier just to print it myself.” The first printing of 50,000 copies quickly sold out, and the 1,200-page book became a bestseller.

While the book has been well-received by some, many scientists are skeptical about Wolfram’s claims. U-M Physics Prof. Gordon Kane says Wolfram has made progress in the research of cellular automata and associated areas of computing theory. But it is not, as the title of the book says, a new kind of science, Kane says.

“It’s always good to have new approaches, and I would be happy if he could explain some phenomena about the laws of nature or the universe that we don’t now understand,” Kane says. “But there are no new explanations in his book in these areas. He speculates that his approach will provide new results, but he does not distinguish carefully between getting new results and his enthusiasm about asking questions new ways.”

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