Thursday, July 5, 2012

Innovative ideas in science: S. Wolfram and A NEW KIND OF SCIENCE

I remember when A New Kind of Science was published ten years ago (2002). It was a big, nice, strange, scandalous and very expensive book (the book is now freely available in the web). I became fascinated by the book - not only the content, but also the book itself. I remember to say in a conference at my University that it was the most well designed scholar book I had ever seen, not only with incredible images but also well organised, by levels of increasing depth and detail.
And it had a nice aroma and flavour of challenge to the classic scholar establishment (for instance, no list of references at the end of the book! and a very peculiar and challenging way to select and to present the citations included). He dare to present such a provocative, new and challenging contributions through publishing himself a book, not writing the classical papers to established peer reviewed journals. A book that is important by its own contributions is nowadays a very rare thing in the scientific community (in science and technology - not in social sciences, where the pattern in very different). "How did he dare to do it?": of course, it was the expected and natural reaction from the establishment.
Reading the book, it was easy for me to become fascinated by some of the ideas and to understand how good Stephen Wolfram is as a scholar - out of academy. To be a scholar outside the academy may be a nonsense for a lot of people (mostly in academy). Stephen is a rare case about what you can do when you do not have any need to pay homage to established people and ideas, you can work out of the box as you like (and you have plenty of resources - time and machines - to do it) and your career does not depend on it. And he is a member of the rare breed of scholars who simultaneously are entrepreneurs and top managers (Mathematica and related products talk by themselves).
Ten years later, NKN (as it is now known) is becoming a well recognised branch (methodology? framework?) of academic research and thought in very different fields, approaching simulation and modelling the real world outside the classical analytical framework of continuous physics and mathematics. The philosophical implications are still difficult to screen - but it is not difficult to anticipate some potential consequences.
Stephen Wolfram has now posted three nice and important post in his elegant blog. I very much recommend reading them. In the first one (It’s Been 10 Years: What’s Happened with A New Kind of Science?, 7th May) he reviews the first ten years of cellular automata and complexity related issues in the scholar literature during this first decade. In the second one (Living a Paradigm Shift: Looking Back on Reactions to A New Kind of Science, 11 May) he discusses a potential shift in paradigma and he discusses the reception to his ideas. In the third one (Looking to the Future of A New Kind of Science, 14 May) he speculates about future developments.
A few citations from these posts:
  • A typical issue that came up was how the book was vetted or checked. In academia, there’s the idea that “peer review” is the ultimate method of checking anything. And perhaps in a world where everyone has infinite time, and nobody operates according to their own self-interest, this might be true. But in reality, peer review is fraught with error, often quite corrupt, and even in the best case strongly biased toward avoiding new ideas and maintaining the status quo. And for a piece of work as large, broad and complex as A New Kind of Science, even the basic mechanics of it seemed completely impractical.
  • Today we are continually exposed to technology and engineering that is directly descended from the development of the mathematical approach to science that began in earnest three centuries ago. Sometime hence I believe a large portion of our technology will instead come from NKS ideas. It will not be created incrementally from components whose behavior we can analyze with traditional mathematics and related methods. Rather it will in effect be “mined” by searching the abstract computational universe of possible simple programs.
  • And my key realization was that the computational universe of simple programs (such as cellular automata) provides an immensely rich source for such modeling. Traditional intuition would have led us to think that simple programs would always somehow have simple behavior. But my first crucial discovery was that this is not the case, and that in fact even remarkably simple programs can produce extremely complex behavior—that reproduces all sorts of phenomena we see in nature.
NKS story is important stuff for sociology and philosophy of science, about emergence of new paradigmas and about the path of innovative ideas in the scientific community. Stay tuned.

    (Image: rule 101 of NKS book)

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