Wolfram hits back at academic critics

October 18, 2002

Bestselling scientist Stephen Wolfram has given his first full response to the academics who attacked the importance and originality of his work, in an interview with The THES .

The British-born author of A New Kind of Science said he had avoided accepting scientific conventions for the sake of clarity while accusing his critics of rejecting his arguments because they upset the established way of thinking.

The book, a product of 15 years of research, argues that all the complexity of the universe - from snowflakes to intelligence - can be generated by the repetition of simple rules. It goes further to argue that these rules may be the building blocks of creation.

Dr Wolfram compared his work with Albert Einstein's in that both challenged the accepted scientific mindset and were subjected to resistance as a result. Like relativity, he predicted that his work would become accepted in 20 years.

Dr Wolfram said the scope of his book was too broad to make publication through peer-reviewed journals useful.

He said he had sacrificed full acknowledgements of the contributions of other scientists to make A New Kind of Science readable.

"If I was doing this in a traditional academic way, this book would not exist," Dr Wolfram said.

Many experts had been unimpressed by Dr Wolfram's approach. Philip Anderson, Nobel laureate and emeritus professor of physics at Princeton University, said Dr Wolfram was not as original as he claimed, drawing on research by a host of other scientists. He added that he seemed unaware of breakthroughs made in the field in recent years.

Seth Lloyd, professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he had hoped Dr Wolfram was considering "rejoining the academic community looking at complex systems" but the book's contents suggested otherwise.

"Wolfram has tried to claim credit for every advance in complex-systems science since the late 19th century," he said.

Matthew Cook, a former employee of Dr Wolfram and now based at the California Institute of Technology, said the book was full of "many new concrete findings and results".

"It can be hard to tell which pieces of research are new and which are repetitions of earlier work by the scientific community, but there is definitely a lot of new stuff in there," he said.

Dr Cook is credited by many of Dr Wolfram's critics as being responsible for the most significant single result in the book. A legal dispute between the two men has recently been resolved.

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