Advertisement
 

A Math Genius Who Decided Not to Play It by the Numbers

The Cutting Edge | Q & A

September 30, 1996|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

When the MacArthur Foundation gave physics prodigy Stephen Wolfram one of its coveted "genius" grants in 1981, it knew it had done something unusual. Wolfram, then a 21-year-old Caltech research associate working in a field called quantum chromodynamics, was the award's youngest recipient.

Foundation officials could not have been more surprised by the end result: He abandoned academia and went into business.

Wolfram, 37, now is the creator and prominent pitchman of perhaps the single most widely used mathematics program for technical and scientific computing. Mathematica--part computer applications program, part programming language, part symbol engine--has more than a million users, ranging from engineers, physicists and technical economists to musicians, textile designers and computer graphics artists.

Wolfram Research Inc. in Chicago, which Wolfram founded in 1986, today plans to introduce a major make-over of the product--Mathematica 3.0--which he hopes will broaden its reach to numerically challenged financial analysts and even high school number crunchers.

In an interview with The Times, Wolfram talked about research, business, intellectual property, the role of universities, money and the pleasures of a computing life.

*

Q As one of the most promising young physicists of your generation, you were poised to pursue a distinguished research career. What prompted you to develop Mathematica instead?

*

A Part of the motivation for building Mathematica was that I needed something like it for myself. Conveniently enough, the thing that I needed turned out to be useful for a million other people.

Quite early on, I was interested in doing experiments on computers. One of the things that held me up was I just didn't have the right tools to do what I wanted to do. I spent a lot of my days writing a lot of pieces of software to support these experiments that I wanted to do on computers. I realized this was silly. I was spending lots of time putting together tools that in some cases could be quite general tools, but I was putting them together for very specific computer experiments.

Maybe, I thought, there is a better way to do this.

As we continue to develop Mathematica, I am probably one of its most stringent testers because I am always trying to push the envelope by using it for my own scientific work. I am always the one reporting the most outrageous bugs.

*

Q You started your design of Mathematica where most software developers end theirs--by writing a 1,395-page users manual. Why?

*

A If you can't explain it honestly in the manual, then you are probably making a mistake in the way it is designed and people will never be able to understand how it is ever going to work.

One of the things I found to be the most intellectually demanding in building big systems like Mathematica is this whole thing of starting from nothing and then having to build some kind of language and some kind of structure that a lot of people are going to live inside. Can you set that up in a way that is intuitive for people?

If it was built in the way people traditionally think of building applications programs, people would never be able to use it in practice. It would be this huge mass of disorganized, incoherent features. Without some kind of overarching set of principles, your pieces would never fit together.

*

Q You continue to conduct basic research, investigating computer automata and artificial-life algorithms. How do you balance the demands of a software developer with a commitment to serious scientific work?

*

A One has to be fairly efficient and organized. It has been my personal practice that I work fairly late at night, by which time the company has closed down. Everything is very quiet, and I am able to concentrate on a solitary activity. It is a strange contrast.

In dealing with a company, managing things, playing entrepreneur, it is a very frenetic existence, where you make 30 decisions a day and you are dealing with people all the time. That is real different from doing basic science, where really it is you and the computer and nothing else. It is a strangely solo activity.

*

Q You went from Caltech to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies to the University of Illinois, and now you are on your own. Is it easier outside the university?

*

A My view about doing basic science is that if you have no choice, then getting paid by a university is a fine thing to do. If you have a choice, there are a lot better ways to live.

In my life now, where I am a CEO of a company, the actual fraction of my time that I can get to devote to basic science thinking is probably much larger than the fraction of time that a typical senior professor at a university would get to devote to actual basic research. If you are a senior university professor, you are out raising money from the government, being on committees, teaching classes, and it is only in the extra bonus time that you get to do research.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|