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The Code of the Cosmos

A genius to some, a crackpot to others, Stephen Wolfram says it's all very simple: The universe can be reduced to a computer program.

July 09, 2002|CHARLES PILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stephen Wolfram was in his Caltech office more than 20 years ago, working late on an autumn evening, when he saw something on his computer screen that shocked and confused him.

The 21-year-old physicist, already a member of the Caltech faculty, had been experimenting with elementary computer programs. He expected them to generate simple, predictable patterns: checkerboards or nested triangles.

Instead, one of the programs spawned complex images that resembled the veins in a leaf. Another filled the screen with what looked like the elegant lace of snowflakes. A third spun out wave after wave of shapes that grew increasingly intricate and varied.

Wolfram had stumbled onto a few lines of computer code that mimicked the ordered chaos of nature. Infinite complexity seemed to arise from ultimate simplicity.

Two decades later, that revelation has blossomed into a grand theory that has raised a furor in the scientific world and sparked a rush by laymen to grasp Wolfram's audacious thesis: The universe is no more than a computer playing out a program of stupefying simplicity.

"If things work out as I expect, there will come a day when one can hold the lines of code that created the whole universe in one's hand," said Wolfram, who revealed his big idea in a 1,200-page self-published opus titled "A New Kind of Science."

Released in May, the tome has soared to the top of Amazon.com's bestseller list, selling out its first printing of 50,000 at $44.95 each.

To Wolfram, a British-born prodigy who earned a doctorate in theoretical physics at age 20 and won a MacArthur "genius" fellowship at 21, rules as simple as tick-tack-toe are the driving force behind all of nature--from single-cell amoebas to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The universe began, he maintains, with a few basic instructions that played themselves out over billions of years to produce everything that exists today. This simple code, he says, underlies consciousness itself, giving rise to our every thought--from the sudden desire for a scoop of chocolate ice cream to Wolfram's own theory.

Like a literary big bang, Wolfram's book has stimulated dozens of reviews and articles in the general and scientific press and has lit up Internet discussion groups. Much of the scientific world is howling in protest, calling his theory the product of a monumental ego unleashed from reality.

For centuries, scientists have sought to explain the natural world--from the rotations of galaxies to the spin of subatomic particles--with mathematical equations. From Isaac Newton's epiphany about gravity and a falling apple to the building of the atomic bomb, the arcane abstractions of calculus have been the key to the universe.

But math falls short when it comes to describing the soft-edged diversity of the natural world. Scientists could fill all the chalkboards in all the universities in the world with equations and still fail to explain the brilliant spots on tropical fish, the contours of wind-blown sand or the shifting shape of a plume of cigar smoke. Mathematics is even more inadequate when it comes to simulating intangibles such as the economy, let alone the vagaries of human thought.

Wolfram, 42, says the answers lie not in the limited tools of old science but in simple computer programs.

He does not pretend to know what lines of code would create a sausage, let alone a solar system. His point is that the basic instructions that create intricate patterns on a computer screen will help us understand what creates similar patterns in nature.

His book is packed with images of Sumerian mosaics and strawberries, earthquake fissures and leopard spots, thermonuclear mushroom clouds and streams of clear water--all modeled with uncanny precision, he says, by shimmering dot patterns generated on a computer screen by a few simple rules.

These pictures, Wolfram argues, reveal a pervasive truth that has been hiding in plain sight.

In presenting this notion to the world, Wolfram has sidestepped time-honored scientific procedures. Instead of submitting a paper to a peer-reviewed scholarly journal and letting colleagues try to pick it apart, he is making his case directly to a mass audience in simple, nontechnical language. This fall, he plans a road show to proselytize about his ideas.

"There just isn't a mechanism within the current structure of science to present things as big as what I'm trying to do," he said.

Actually, "big" doesn't begin to capture it, Wolfram says. He describes his theory as "one of the more important single discoveries in the whole history of theoretical science," akin to those of Copernicus, who overturned centuries of orthodoxy by proving in 1530 that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and Charles Darwin, whose 1859 theory of natural selection shattered religious dogma about creation.

A Leap of Faith?

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