Scientists round on bestselling author

September 6, 2002

The academic knives are out for Stephen Wolfram, the scientist who snubbed modern scientific convention to publish his ideas in a bestselling book.

Leading figures in complexity theory have accused the British-born author of A New Kind of Science of exaggerating the importance of his work.

One group was so incensed that it voted 11-1 against a inviting Dr Wolfram to talk at the Santa Fe Institute in the US, one of the world's leading centres for complexity research.

Nevertheless, A New Kind of Science has grabbed headlines, topped bestseller lists and been printed 200,000 times since its publication in May.

Dr Wolfram, an acknowledged pioneer in the field and creator of technical software package Mathematica, outlined his ideas in the 1,200-page volume rather than publish in peer-reviewed academic journals.

He seeks to show how very simple programs can produce every level of complexity found in the universe, tackling everything from evolution to free will.

His website hails the book for "initiating a paradigm shift of historic importance in science" while noting that Dr Wolfram is "widely regarded as one of the world's most original scientists".

But other leading figures in the field disagree. J. Doyne Farmer, McKinsey professor at the Santa Fe Institute and a former collaborator of Dr Wolfram's, was among those who claimed there was little new in the volume.

John Casti, a leading complexity theorist at the Technical University of Vienna, Austria, said: "There is definitely an 'anti-Wolfram' campaign by almost everyone in the systems and complexity community."

Seth Lloyd, professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he had hoped Dr Wolfram would use the book to rejoin the academic community but instead he had provoked a mixture of outrage, bemusement and amusement with the claims made in it.

Dr Wolfram was unavailable for comment.

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