Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Web Secet 485: the computational universe

It's 7:30 am during the week.

I am: 
1. drinking a double espresso
2. solving the NY Times crossword puzzle
3. eating a bowl of cereal.  

Not being a morning person, I am somewhat comatose. In contrast, at that same time, my son Eric is in alert mode. He likes to invade my personal space to lecture me about the topics he finds interesting: science, tech and economics. It is not sufficient for me to nod my head. He expects me to understand what he is talking about.

A few months ago, he told me about the computational universe and a guy called Stephen Wolfram.

This time, I realized I had to shake myself out of my torpor and pay attention.

So should you.

Meet Stephen Wolfram.

Stephen is very, very smart. He is a theoretical physicist, a computer scientist and a mathematician.

And he was the youngest person at age 21 to ever win a MacArthur Genius Award.

Wolfram’s scientific work involves the development of a major new approach to science, in which nature is described in terms of simple computer programs rather than traditional mathematical equations. His work provides new foundations for examining a range of fundamental questions in physics, biology, computer science, mathematics, and other areas.

I know, it gives me a headache. But we must plow on, because this is important folks.

It was previously thought that describing something as complex as the universe would require very complex mathematical proofs.

But Wolfram discovered that profoundly complex systems can be generated by very simple programs.

Here is one of his most important discoveries - he calls it Rule 30.

I'll let him explain:

"Look at each cell and its right hand neighbor. If both of these are white, then take the new color of the cell to be whatever the previous color its left-hand neighbor was. Otherwise, take the new color to be the opposite of that.

The picture shows what happens when one starts with just one black cell and then applies the rule over and over again. And what one sees is something startling - and probably the single most surprising scientific discovery I have ever made. Rather than getting a simple regular pattern as we might expect, the cellular automation instead produces a pattern that seems extremely irregular and complex."

So class, to summarize Rule 30:

1. though the rules are simple

2. and though it starts from a very simple condition - black and white squares

3. the behavior produced is very complex.

This is what is produced after repeating the rule hundreds of times:

Wolfram believes this basic phenomenon is ultimately responsible for most of the complexity we see in nature.

In other words, if we really want to understand nature’s complexity, we need to go beyond mathematics with all its complicated equations and symbols.

Instead we should be embracing “a new kind of science” – as Wolfram titled his book – in which the answers to science’s most difficult problems lie in simple computer programs.


We should be able to use simple programs to decipher the wonders of the universe.

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