Wolfram has come to Caltech to lecture on Mathematica as part of a 15-city tour to publicize the release of the newest version of the $1,295 software package. The encounter is also a personal homecoming of sorts for the 37-year-old CEO.When he was barely out of his teens, the baby-faced doctoral student was Caltech’s impatient wonder boy, a rising star whose work applying high-energy physics to cosmology was bright enough to attract the interest of Nobel laureates Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann. But on this day at Caltech, mellowed by age, marriage, fatherhood, and commercial success, Wolfram no longer resembles the study in adolescent impetuosity who was known to choose his vacation spots simply by buying an airplane ticket to whatever destination appeared at the top of the departure board. Over a lunch of pork tenderloin and a green salad, Wolfram politely deflects personal questions about his wife, who is a mathematician, and his newborn child, out of privacy concerns prompted by the Unabomber case. But he talks eagerly about his extensive collection of seashells, the many dead ends of contemporary physics, and the proper role of a scientist in a free-market society.
A self-taught prodigy who never bothered with an undergraduate degree, the English-born Wolfram published his first paper on a problem in particle physics at 15. After stints at Eton and Oxford, he received his PhD in physics from Caltech at 20. At 21, he made headlines as the youngest person to receive a so-called genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The grant was based on the quality of his intellect more than on any single body of work and was intended to give Wolfram the freedom to step outside the mainstream, explains Kenneth W. Hope, an assistant dean of social sciences at the University of Chicago who administered the MacArthur grant program. “He was so remarkably smart,” Hope recalls. “He dazzled a lot of people.”
“Working with him [was] like playing basketball with Michael Jordan,” says Rocky Kolb, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, who coauthored 10 papers on high-energy physics and the nascent universe with Wolfram early in his career. “He pushes.”
Indeed, his talent and ambition seemed to be matched only by his arrogance. Described as brash even by his friends, Wolfram had an “amazing lack of respect for the work of other people,” Levy recalls. He hurried through a succession of prestigious faculty positions at Caltech, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the University of Illinois, leaving patches of bad feeling smoldering behind him like a series of burned bridges.
He left Caltech after a dispute over the ownership of a computer programming language he developed. At Princeton, colleagues recall, his reliance on electronic computation seemed to unsettle older scientists more accustomed to slide rules and chalkboards. His impatience with academic formalities and faculty politics soon led him to relocate to Illinois, lured by the possibility of greater independence and the promise of quick tenure. At Illinois, however, Wolfram “stepped on a lot of toes,” Packard says. “The political game of the university is a complex one and is not always amenable to the brash, demanding whiz-kid interloper.” Again, impatience won out. And when he spurned academia for the business world, many felt he had left his promise unfulfilled.
But in dozens of influential research papers, he had left his mark on physics, cosmology, computer science, and complexity theory. In 1981, for instance, he independently reinvented cellular automata, a concept that mathematicians John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam had created in 1953 for modeling complex systems on computers. Wolfram subsequently used them to create a widely used system for classifying complex phenomena. The publication of his papers on cellular automata helped to lay the groundwork for the development of the field of artificial life, a branch of complexity studies that uses computer modeling to simulate ecosystems and explore patterns of evolution.
Christopher Langton, director of the Artificial Life project at the Santa Fe Institute for Complex Studies in New Mexico, emphasizes the importance of Wolfram’s work to the development of the field. “I don’t think there is any doubt that Stephen Wolfram made fundamental contributions. His original work on the statistical mechanics of cellular automata singlehandedly revitalized the field and has served as the basis for countless other contributions by thousands of researchers around the world.”
Wolfram was also a “prime instigator” in creating the field of computational physics-the use of computers to model problems in basic physics-notes Gerald Tesauro, a physicist at the IBM Research Division’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. To some extent, Wolfram’s difficulties in academia stemmed from the interdisciplinary nature of this new field, which cuts across the organizational grain of academic departments, tenure tracks, and faculty prerogatives. According to his former collaborators, the physicist encountered considerable difficulty in obtaining funding for his work through conventional academic channels. Several computer scientists suggest that Wolfram may also have been handicapped by a lingering skepticism among some members of the scientific community about the true value of the kind of computer research he performs. Computer experiments, the skeptics say, are only elaborate electronic games with little or no connection to the real world. Indeed, the very first such computer program, a pattern-generating program called Life, was once distributed as part of a commercial package of computer games.
“There may have been some element of a question mark regarding the kind of science that Stephen represents,” Packard says. “This kind of science is new and not exactly easy to take for the traditional scientific community. But I think it has more to do with the intrinsic difficulty-intellectually, politically, and culturally-of getting academic disciplines to really embrace interdisciplinary research.”
Wolfram’s impatience with the organizational constraints of academia matched his mounting frustration with the mechanics of coaxing computers to model the hypotheses he wanted to pursue, a dissatisfaction that drove him to develop Mathematica.
“Quite early on, I was interested in doing experiments on computers,” Wolfram recalls. “One of the things that held me up was that I just didn’t have the right tools to do what I wanted to do. I spent a lot of my days writing a lot of pieces of software to support these experiments. I realized this was silly. I was spending lots of time putting together tools which in some cases could be quite general tools, but I was putting them together for very specific computer experiments.
“Maybe,’ I thought, there is a better way to do this.’”
And what is Mathematica, exactly? Even Wolfram and his marketing department are hard pressed to give a simple description of this comprehensive mathematics processing program. Incorporating hundreds of math and physical constants and the world’s largest collection of mathematical formulas, it offers a wide range of computational tools for scientists, engineers, and mathematicians interested in computer modeling and simulations. The program not only performs calculations but also generates graphics and provides the formatting tools of desktop publishing so that researchers can present their work.
It is a versatile tool shaped by each user’s individual purpose. Researchers have used the software’s modeling capabilities to solve problems as diverse as designing the bicycle track for the 1996 Olympic Games, predicting flow rates of molecules in commercial shampoos using various kinds of ingredients, and determining how tidal waves evolve as they sweep toward shore. So many computer-graphics artists have used Mathematica to create arresting geometric images that Wolfram opened an art gallery on his company’s Web site. According to the company’s estimates, a million researchers in 90 countries use the program, including all the Fortune 500 companies, the federal government, and the world’s 50 largest universities.
The program has competitors, such as Mathcad, Scientific Workplace, and Theorist. But with the newest release of Mathematica-Version 3.0-last fall, Wolfram “established his superiority,” says Columbia University civil engineering professor Gautum Dasgupta, who uses Mathematica to model the effects of major earthquakes. As head of an international teaching group, he also uses the program to develop computer tutorials for universities around the world. Dasgupta credits Mathematica’s “overall comprehensive approach” with distinguishing it from other, more specialized programs. Other users note the program’s emphasis on technical innovation-in which they see the characteristics of the man who designed it.
To produce the most recent version, Wolfram spent two years rebuilding the program from the ground up. Now he has vowed to reconstruct the world of physics, using Mathematica as the intellectual tool to do it.