Wolfram’s “Science”

In 1992 Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica, went into a self-imposed 10-year seclusion to write the 1200-page self-published tome called A New Kind of Science. In this article I evaluate some aspects of the “science” in the A New Kind of Science, using some general stephen-wolfram-portraitand obvious characteristics of science (see  here for the list that I am using). The new kind of “science” does not study material objects, as all sciences do. It uses programming rules that are applied to automaton cells and networks to create pictures on computer screens. Wolfram considers every production of such pictures a triumph of his “science.” It is Wolfram’s way of “explaining” things. For example, if his rules can produce a picture of zebra stripes on his desktop, he thinks he has given an “explanation” of how zebra’s skin evolved.

Wolfram devotes 113 pages of his book to Chapter 9 titled Fundamental Physics. You might think that the chapter is on atoms, nuclei, electrons, leptons, or quarks. No! Wolfram is interested only in those topics which are best suited for pictorial representation. The entire modern physics, the physics that has developed over the past 112 years, the physics that has been awarded over one hundred of the hundred eleven Nobel Prizes, this physics gets a mere thirty pages of coverage!

In his discussion of the nature of space and time, Wolfram makes the assumption that space and time are “fundamentally the same.” This is fundamentally wrong and a huge blunder! It is the difference between space and time that makes time travel impossible, even in relativity theory where time is considered the fourth dimension.

Out of the nine pages that Wolfram devotes to special relativity, the first five pages focus on setting up the right causal network. This network has a fundamental length and a fundamental time interval. Wolfram takes the value of the speed of light from “traditional” physics and assumes that the ratio of his fundamental length to his fundamental time interval is that speed. Why the speed of light? Because it plays a unique role in the theory of relativity. Then two pages later, he writes, “In the past, however, there seemed to be no underlying mechanism that could account for the validity of this basic theory [the fact that the speed of light is unique]. But now it turns out that the kind of discrete causal network models that I have described almost inevitably end up being able to do this.” These are the networks whose ratio of the elemental length to elemental time was chosen to be the speed of light! This is a classic example of circular argumentation; and if done knowingly, a swindle!

Wolfram describes motion as follows: “To say that one is not moving means that one imagines one is in a sense sampling the same region of space throughout time. But if one is moving – say at a fixed speed – then this means that one imagines that the region of space one is sampling systematically shifts with time.” Thus, by sampling the underlying space alone and seeing if it shifts or not, one can tell whether one is moving or not. Now, the first lesson we learn in mechanics is that motion is not absolute!  The only meaningful description of motion is to say “A is moving relative to B”: you need two objects to define motion. There is no such thing as absolute motion. Yet in the physics of the “new kind of science,” Wolfram has managed to come up with precisely this kind of motion! Another huge blunder!

One of the hallmarks of science, and its most determining litmus test, is prediction. Special relativity predicted the equivalence of mass and energy, quantum physics predicted lasers, antimatter, Higgs boson, and so on. Wolfram claims to have created a new “science.” Does this “science” have predictions? Here is a sample of the closest thing to predictions in his book:

  • “… it is my strong suspicion that at least many of the visually most striking differences – associated for example with texture and pigmentation patterns – in the end have almost nothing to do with natural selection.”
  • But I strongly suspect that the vast majority of significant new features that appear in organisms are at least at first associated with fairly short underlying programs.”
  • “… I am extremely optimistic that by using the ideas of this book the most fundamental problem of physics – and one of the ultimate problems of all of science – may finally be within sight of being solved.”
  • Since Wolfram’s rule 37R does not follow the predictions of the second law of thermodynamics, “I strongly suspect that there are many systems in nature which behave in more or less the same way [as his rule 37R]. The Second Law is an important and quite general principle – but it is not universally valid.” Yet another huge blunder!
  • I strongly suspect that in the underlying rule for our universe there will be no such [cellular automata] built-in structure. Rather, … my guess is that at the lowest level there will be certain patterns of connectivity.”
  • I strongly suspect that the vast majority of physical laws discovered so far are not truly fundamental, but are instead merely emergent features of the large-scale behavior of some ultimate underlying rule.”
  • “Yet my suspicion is that a large part of the reason for this [the failure of the hypothesis that space and all the things that are inside it are made of the same stuff] is just the assumption that space is a perfect continuum – described by traditional mathematics.”
  • “And in fact it is my strong suspicion that the kinds of programs that I have discussed in the past few sections will actually in the end turn out to show many if not all the key features of quantum theory.”

Aren’t these “predictions” more like the last sermon of a cult leader to his disciples?

Wolfram locks himself up for ten years to self-publish a 1200-page tome. What does he do after the publication? Does he attend conferences to inform his fellow scientists of hundreds of new discoveries that he has made, to share his ideas with them, perhaps get some new ideas from them? No! He begins an advertising campaign. He reaches out to the popular media. He appears on TV shows. He uses his vast resources on the internet to publicize the book. … This is not the practice of a scientist. This is what rich crackpot scientists do!

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