Balding with ruffled hair, wearing a brown blazer and New Balance sneakers, Stephen Wolfram’s appearance is unassuming. Yet he says the theories in his new book will revolutionize our understanding of how the universe works.

Paul Wong
Physicist Stephen Wolfram describes his theories on the mechanism of the universe in the Rackham Building last night.

Wolfram spoke at the newly reopened Rackham Building auditorium as part of a nationwide speaking tour to promote his new 1,125-page book titled “A New Kind of Science,” which has been 20 years in the making.

His book claims that random patterns in nature are produced by simple computer programs. He postulates that mathematics, physics and even human intelligence can be understood as products of simple patterns.

Wolfram earned his doctorate from the California Institute of Technology at age 20, winning the MacArthur Foundation award two years later in 1981, and authored the award-winning mathematics software, Mathematica, in 1986 at the age of 26.

Wolfram said the University offered him a “very nice position” in 1982, which he turned down to take a research position at Princeton University.

Wolfram says he was experimenting with basic computer programs when he made a startling discovery. When exploring a set of 256 geometric patterns, one set of rules stood out.

A quiet murmur could be heard after Wolfram displayed a graph produced by rule number 30, where regular pattern disintegrates into visual chaos.

The audience of more than 1,000 people included graduate students and faculty from the Center for the Study of Complex Systems, who hosted the lecture.

“It makes me increasingly hopeful that one basic, simple program could be found that could explain the universe,” Wolfram said, “And that will be a very exciting.”

His presentation included many apparently random images generated by simple computer programs.

“If rule 30 had been known in antiquity, a lot of the rules of natural science would definitely differ,” Wolfram said. He added that processes with simple rules can easily produce patterns similar to snowflakes, tree leaves and shells.

“It really seems like we’ve captured the basic mechanism that produces real snowflakes,” Wolfram said, projecting a remarkably lifelike snowflake shape produced by a basic computer program.

Wolfram said the entire first printing of his book – 50,000 copies – sold out on the first day they were available for sale. “All the signs of a paradigm shift are in the making.”

Others aren’t so sure – critics have accused Wolfram of re-packaging theories which have been explored for years and for choosing to write a book rather than a series of scholarly articles.

Attendees of the lecture had mixed reactions to Wolfram’s book.

“I think it’s interesting, but I don’t see the huge fundamental changes,” LSA Freshman Trevor Higgens said. “I would say it’s not going to be that big of a deal in twenty years.”

LSA senior Paul Litvak said he was withholding judgment on Wolfram’s book.

“It has a lot of potential … that’s kind of my feeling,” Litvak said, adding that other ground-breaking theories were controversial before becoming generally accepted. “The thing I wait for is one verifiable result.”

Some were impressed with the theory.

“I was very impressed with his book,” said Dave Snyder, a systems programmer for the University’s Information Technology Central Services who attended the talk. “He could be on to something – it’s hard to know for sure.”

Wolfram says his theory has important social and philosophical implications.

“My theory is completely deterministic,” Wolfram said. “Even with definite underlying laws, there’s no way of determining what a system will do other than running it.”

Some questions after the lecture challenged Wolfram’s reliance on computer models to explain the universe.

“Most of the time models are very contentious things,” Wolfram said. “There is one case where that isn’t true – it’s if there’s an ultimate model for the universe … it’s deducing physics to mathematics.”

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