New Kind Of Science
Cellular Automata book by Stephen Wolfram
online for free (Feb2004) http://www.wolframscience.com/nksonline/
Rudy Rucker's compsci class is going through Stimulating Learning Projects based on New Kind Of Science
Cosma Shalizi says  The one new, true thing is a proof that the elementary CA rule 110 can support universal, Turing Complete computation. (One of Wolfram's earlier books states that such a thing is obviously impossible.) This however was shown not by Wolfram but by Matthew Cook (this is the "technical content and proofs" for which Wolfram acknowledges Cook, in miniscule type, in his frontmatter)... Watch This Space for a detailed critique of this book, a rare blend of monster raving egomania and utter batshit insanity.


As the saying goes, there is much here that is new and true, but what is true is not new, and what is new is not true; and some of it is even old and false, or at least utterly unsupported.... Let me try to sum up. On the one hand, we have a large number of true but commonplace ideas, especially about how simple rules can lead to complex outcomes, and about the virtues of toy models. On the other hand, we have a large mass of dubious speculations (many of them also unoriginal). We have, finally, a single new result of mathematical importance, which is not actually the author's. Everything is presented as the inspired fruit of a lonely genius, delivering startling insights in isolation from a blinkered and philistine scientific community.

The natural result is a cult following. Wolfram certainly has that, to judge from his sales, the attendance at his "New Kind of Science" conventions, and the reader reviews on Amazon. (I presume they are not all a claque hired by Wolfram Media.) This frankly is part of a disturbing trend, pronounced within the field of Complex Systems. In addition to Wolfram, I might mention the cult of personality around Ilya Prigogine, and Stuart Kauffman's book Investigations, or even the way George Lakoff uses "as cognitive science shows" to mean "as I claimed in my earlier books".

This result, like the one about rule 110, is neat for people who care about dynamical models of universal computation  on the order of a thousand scientists and mathematicians world wide. What Wolfram wants to claim is that, since one universal computer is equivalent to another, by studying the behavior of one we learn things which are true of all others (true), therefore Rule 110 is as complex as anything in the universe, and all intelligent life, including, perhaps, the gods must have much in common. This, to put it mildly, does not follow. (Computational Equivalence)

This brings me to the core of what I dislike about Wolfram's book. It is going to set the field back by years. On the one hand, scientists in other fields are going to think we're all crackpots like him. On the other hand, we're going to be deluged, again, with people who fall for this kind of nonsense. I expect to have to waste a lot of time in the next few years deprogramming students who'll have read A New Kind Of Science before knowing any better.

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