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A Scientist Without Peer

Whether Wolfram succeeds or fails as a physicist, the manner in which he has chosen to pursue his research poses some provocative questions for the practice of science.

What sets Wolfram apart is his insistence on working independently, not just without collaborators but also without the supporting superstructure of the conventional research establishment: he relies on his own funding and equipment and has no one to answer to but himself.

“My view about doing basic science,” he explains, “is that if you have no choice, then getting paid by a university is a fine thing to do. If you have a choice, there are a lot better ways to live.

“As CEO of a company, the fraction of my time that I get to devote to basic science is probably much larger than the fraction of time that a typical senior professor at a university would devote to basic research. If you are a senior university professor, you are out raising money from the government, being on committees, and teaching classes. It is only in the extra bonus time that you get to do research.”

Wolfram says he wants to revive an older tradition in which people pursue science as a personal calling, whether or not they are the beneficiaries of public patronage. Too many scientists today, he says, give up their research simply because they can’t get the public to pay for it. Indeed, one of the attractions of computational research, he says, is that it requires nothing more expensive than a personal computer.
“I don’t have to beg the government,” he says. “I don’t have to convince anyone at the National Science Foundation that what I am doing is not as nutty as they might assume or as the peer review system might say it is.”

No public funding, however, means no real obligation to communicate his findings, and no need to submit himself to peer review. “It may sound arrogant, but I have moved pretty far away from what most scientists know about,” Wolfram maintains. “That means there are fewer and fewer people I can talk to about what I am doing. Your typical top scientist does not know this stuff.

“I am my own reality check,” he concludes.

Some researchers say Wolfram is blazing a path for other scientists to follow. With full-time faculty research jobs scarce and funding for basic industrial research increasingly rare, many scientists are seeking new ways to balance the demands of commerce against the lure of knowledge for its own sake. And the idea of financial independence is becoming more attractive.

By creating a software company to support his work, “he has built a new model for funding science-the scientist as entrepreneur, rather than the scientist as public welfare recipient,” says Sejnowski at the Salk Institute. Wolfram, he says, reminds him of Edwin Land, who founded Polaroid and then continued to pursue basic research into the physics of color and vision in his corporate lab.

“In starting your own business,” physicist-turned-entrepreneur Packard concurs, “you don’t have to deal with the same kind of political complexities, and you don’t have to tolerate a lot of the bull you have to tolerate in a university. You are not at the whim of the scientific culture of some funding agency.”

There is certainly no shortage of iconoclastic loners in contemporary science. Princeton University mathematician Andrew Wiles spent seven years working secretly in his attic to polish a 200-page proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, one of the most famous problems in his field. When he unveiled his solution in a series of dramatic lectures in 1993, he made headlines around the world. Only then, however, did a sharp-eyed graduate student spot-and help fix-a critical error.

Indeed, the aloofness that Wolfram considers one of his virtues, others see as self-defeating. “He is battling with himself when he chooses to work in complete isolation,” one former Princeton University associate says. “He is hurting himself by not interacting more with the scientific community at large.”

Other colleagues worry that his research muse has become a computer widow. In the past 18 months, for example, he has had little opportunity to brood on basic science, concentrating instead on polishing the new release of the program. They question whether Wolfram will ever be willing to loosen his hold on company operations enough to permit sustained, reflective research. While admiring his commercial success, they worry that he has been sidetracked by his tools-like a sculptor who spends all day sharpening her chisels but never sets one to marble, or a novelist who spends all day fiddling with the fonts in his word processing program.

“He has invested a lot of time in [Mathematica],” Hillis says. “That is great for the rest of us who use it, but it is probably bad for physics.”

The program Wolfram developed to facilitate his own research may, in the end, overshadow it; the man who sought such a prominent place in the history of science may have to settle instead for a mention in his own company’s annual reports. But as the scientific community waits and watches, it is not yet clear how this particular high-wire act will end. Wolfram remains balanced delicately on the tightrope of his ambitions.

“I seriously doubt that Stephen would set himself up for the fall he would take if he never delivers on the promise,” Langton says. “I am willing to place my bets on Stephen, even though I don’t know when they might pay off.”

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