Stephen Wolfram’s unfortunate ego

Sunday 21 July 2002

I’ve started reading Stephen Wolfram’s landmark book, A New Kind Of Science. Much has already been said about Wolfram’s high opinion of himself, and his presentation style. Even knowing these things beforehand, my breath was taken away by the sheer size of Wolfram’s ego.

For those who don’t know, Wolfram’s book is about a new approach to science that is the biggest new direction since Newton, and, according to Wolfram, will be wildly more successful than previous techniques. Whether this is true or not, I cannot say. Presumably reading the whole book will give me some idea, but I don’t pretend to ever be able to make that sort of judgement. I’ll leave that to others. Perhaps only a century’s time will ever tell.

My thoughts keep running to two other geniuses: Isaac Newton (Wolfram’s predecessor in revolutionizing science) and Donald Knuth (another contemporary computer scientist). Like Wolfram, both personally produced enormous works that changed the course of their fields. Like Wolfram, both were renowned for their intelligence and wide-ranging work. But both were also gracious and modest, something that Wolfram is not.

Newton’s most famous quote is “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants”. Knuth’s writing is as comprehensive and authoritative as Wolfram’s, yet has a friendliness and openness that Wolfram seems incapable of.

Wolfram has been criticized for not crediting others for their contributions to the work. Again, I cannot judge whether this is true. What is clear is that a reader of his book would come away with a picture of Wolfram working in isolation for twenty years, and emerging from his cave with an earth-shattering theory fully-formed. On page 12 of his book is a section which presents thumbnail sketches of such fields as Artificial Intelligence, Chaos Theory, Evolution Theory, and Fractal Geometry. The section is called “Past Initiatives”, and essentially presents these efforts has having failed. Rather than discuss them as foundations and precursors, he paints them as erroneous dead-ends.

Another blemish is the encouragement to use Mathematica as a tool. Stephen Wolfram wrote Mathematica (again, this is presented as simple fact: I’m sure there were others involved!), and I have no doubt that it is a wonderful tool, even a ground-breaking one. I also have no doubt that it is the best way to experiment with these ideas. But there is something unseemly about stating matter-of-factly that the experiments in the book can be duplicated on a standard computer, while glossing over the fact that the recommended techniques (Mathematica programs) require spending hundreds of dollars to buy the software from his own company. Perhaps there are other ways to experiment? Of course, but Wolfram isn’t helping us to discover them.

Should it matter whether Wolfram is gracious and charming? Perhaps in some pure abstract world populated by pure abstract scientists, it should not. But we do not live in such a world. As an ordinary reader of the book, I find it grating and distracting. If I had been one of those whose efforts have been glossed over, I would find it enraging. Writing a book is fundamentally about trying to transmit ideas from the author’s mind to the readers’. As I read A New Kind Of Science, it seems there are three main ideas I’m supposed to accept:

  1. Computational processes can provide the underpinnings for science.
  2. Stephen Wolfram is a genius.
  3. I should buy Mathematica.

In a perfect world, idea #1 would be the only idea explicitly encouraged by the book, and ideas #2 and #3 would be natural by-products. Modesty in an author would require text actually countering ideas #2 and #3. Wolfram’s style unfortunately makes me question which idea is most important to him. I begin to suspect it is #2, which may hurt the acceptance of #1.

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Newton, modest? You must be kidding!

His "sholders of giant's" comment was almost certainly intended to insult Robert Hooke, a famously short rival.
I read Stephen Wolfram's book as soon as it came out. I couldn't put it down and while it took a while to get through I found it fascinating.

Part of my fascination derives from the fact that I am an author of a successful video game, Gemstone Healer, that included two different cellular automata based systems for the "generation" of maps for the game. In particular the "dungeon rooms" of the game were generated with cellular automata that produced images similar to those on page 177 in chapter five of NKS, "Two Dimensions and Beyond". Given that the rules in my cellular automata are simple, yet more advanced than many in NKS, they could generate many billions of possible game "rooms". It took time to get the rules right for this to work and to be 100% sure that there would always be a path through the "rooms" for the player.

While I could have I didn't feel slighted by NKS in anyway.

I also didn't feel that he was treading on other people's toes, but I can't read minds. There are so many references in the book that the arguments that he didn't acknowledge people isn't fair. Maybe some were missed. Certainly for people who rely on references to their works being published a missed reference is a missed opportunity for credit.

As for the attack upon him for not "standing on the shoulders of giants". It's irrelevant as it's obvious that he stood on the shoulders of giants since most of us do these days.

As for the references to Mathematica, I didn't feel that he was being overly "commercial" with the references to it in his book. There are simply no other systems quite like Mathematica. That's the tool he used and it's a bit of a standard in math and science now, much like Microsoft Excel is a pervasive standard. Maybe someday an open source version will exist.

While I came away with the impression that Wolfram was working on this for twenty years in isolation it's a bit simplistic of a view. In reality very few of us work in isolation as we are influenced by many sources each day.

While you "color" his "emerging from his cave with an earth-shattering theory fully-formed" as a negative, I certainly see that as a positive. Good for him, regardless if his theories are proven right or wrong. That effort shows stamina and perseverance. That shows a depth of character that few have. Look at what JRR Tolkien produced in his lifetime.

I'm glad that he wasn't "gracious" and "charming". I found the "edge" in his work helpful in understanding the "boundaries" of the scope his work. I'm glad that he sliced through others views by taking a powerful stand and calling those prior efforts "dead-ends". Actually he didn't call them dead-ends he wrote about "insuperable barriers" (full quote below). It's obviously his "point of view" and it clearly delineates his thinking from theirs. He also offers ideas, methods and tools (in the form of Mathematica) to aid in the search for solutions.

It's clear that Wolfram has a unique style of writing. It seems obvious that some could be "slighted" by his cutting style since he is making a bold statement regarding their work. The opportunity for them is to see the possibilities embodied within the ideas, methods and tools he presents and search for new solutions they haven't seen before.

Wolfram makes a bold statement (on page 12) that "without the ideas and methods of this book there have been basic issues that have eventually ended up presenting almost insuperable barriers to every major approach that has been tried."

In my view, Wolfram is a man in the prime of his power and he is using it to attempt to impact the world. Whether we like him or not isn't the point. Whether we like his style of publishing or his style of writing isn't important. What is important are the theories and tools of exploration that back them up.
I agree with Ned. Wolfram may well be a revolutionary thinker but the book is vague and sounds more like a sales pitch than a proposal. Maybe he is just a bad writer. A bad writer that has never read his own book. I can't afford his software, maybe this is why im not getting his wonderful new science. Most of what i read in the book doesnt seem to be that revolutionary anyhow. Anyone that has briefly looked into things like artificial intellegence, randomness, and complexity, has already infered most of these 'earth shattering' ideas, they just never thought they were solid enough to be published. Maybe i'm missing something, or maybe im the next Steven Wolfram. If the latter is true i suspect the former probably is aswell. I would like to think that good science comes from pragmatists, not propagandists. I don't know, i might just be incapable accepting good information from such an overtly arrogant person.
Wolfrom is a smart man, but a very insecure one indeed. He contributed to the development of the theories about which he writes. They were invented by him and a few hundred other quieter folks.
I have used Mathematica for many years. I spent some time re-working its help system and in fact rewrote it. Some of my ideas are still there today.
I did all of that before reading NKS. I picked up the book and like most I read took chunks out of several places before going to the beginning. The first couple of chapters are enough to make you wander if when the space ship is leaving and, Fearless Leader is going to make the speech about how the world is going to end and anyone not with him is going to die on the surface.
I assumed incorrectly for many years that he was as humble as many math and science people are. ;) Maybe just everyday. Well as it works out he surprised me with his, Smartest person on Earth attitude.

Not sure who John Wolfram is outside of the guy that wrote before me. Sure seems to have Steven in sight with his thoughts. If your related sure would be interesting to chat with you.

I downloaded an ebook of All kinds of science and decided to read it. But after reading the first few pages I couldn't tolerate anymore of extremely high praises of himself. Then I searched on internet about Stephen wolfram with the key words 'Stephen Wolfram arrogant.'
Your blog was on the search result. Now I feel a little happier that I am not the only one who thinks like that.
This page is the first hit when searched with Wolfram+Ego. My search was prompted when I read about the "Computable Document Format" described as "computation-powered knowledge container".

A predictable over the top promo from the Wolfram "Group."

See (the search tags are hilarious) and a short clip on Youtube on SW's ego.
Newton was not modest! He was a raging egotist who brooked no scientific competition and embarked on a pointed, systematic plan to discredit his rival Gottfried Leibniz. (He also messed up John Flamsteed's life pretty badly.)
My memory of Newton's biography is sketchy but I think he was modest about his work in the end. According to William Dunham,

"your humble servant, isaac newton"
I used Mathematica and maple when I was studying my Physics bachelor degree 17 years ago. Both of them where great tools. But to be honest python and mathplotlib and others libraries are better than Mathematica. Numpy, pandas, etc. And those are free. So I think Wolfram is facing a lot of challenges with these new competitors. I thin Wolfram is really smart. But he has a lot of ego and lack of self criticism.

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