At 3 p.m. on April 28, launch was still two weeks out as the 49-year-old Wolfram–graying, balding, and full of nervous energy–took his place at a Harvard Law School lectern, clad as usual in an oxford shirt, khakis, and Nike sneakers, to deliver the first public (and webcast) demonstration of Wolfram Alpha. Speaking in his soft English accent, he ran through some of the engine’s bag of tricks, such as entering strings of Gs, Cs, As, and Ts to obtain detailed data about the genes in which a DNA sequence appeared.
Over the previous two decades, Wolfram had come to be known for both his brilliance and his self-aggrandizement. A London-born prodigy, he skipped an undergraduate degree to receive his PhD in physics from Caltech when he was 20, and won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant two years later. He held a series of prestigious posts at Caltech, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the University of Illinois. But in the mid-1980s he left academia to found Wolfram Research, and in 1988 the company issued the first version of Mathematica. The software contains vast libraries of mathematical functions, tools for visualizing data in two and three dimensions, and deep databases on astronomical bodies, chemical compounds, subatomic particles, socioeconomic matters, financial instruments, human genes and proteins, and some simple biographical information, among other things. And it produces wonderful visualizations: geometric shapes, molecular diagrams, orbit plots.
Fourteen years after the first release of Mathematica–a period during which he published no research–Wolfram birthed a 1,200-page tome, A New Kind of Science, which he thereafter referred to as NKS. In it, he posited that many complex systems and problems–from plant and animal morphologies to quantum mechanics–could be reduced to simple rules. In the New York Times, George Johnson proclaimed, “No one has contributed more seminally to this new way of thinking about the world.” But Wolfram’s own characterization–that the book “has been seen as initiating a paradigm shift of historic importance in science”–met with more than a little eye rolling. “The adjective Wolframian has entered the lexicon, to mean taking something that everyone knows and presenting it as this astounding discovery about the nature of reality,” says Scott Aaronson, a computer scientist at MIT (whose blog, Shtetl Optimized, is published on technologyreview.com). Aaronson does not deny that Mathematica is “very cool software,” but he says that NKS, while it has value as popular science, “has essentially had zero impact on the areas of computer science and physics that I know about.”
To Wolfram, Alpha now joins NKS as one of the great scientific endeavors in human history. He distributed a two-page list placing it at the end of a continuum that begins with the invention of arithmetic and written language and goes on to mention the Library of Alexandria, Isaac Newton, and the creation of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He positions Mathematica just before the invention of the World Wide Web in 1989; NKS earns a spot between Wikipedia and Web 2.0. He describes the final entry, Wolfram Alpha, as “defining a new kind of knowledge-based computing.”
A real-world validation of Alpha’s potential importance came partway into Wolfram’s Harvard Law talk. At 3:17 p.m., Google’s official blog announced a new service allowing people to search and compare public data, starting with federal census and labor data. The service would return not Web pages but Google-produced charts and graphs. (A search for “Ohio unemployment rate,” for example, would produce a chart of the data, plus ways to compare that rate to those of other states.) The blog post called it a way to start tapping vast realms of “interesting public data” on “prices of cookies, CO2 emissions, asthma frequency, high school graduation rates, bakers’ salaries, number of wildfires, and the list goes on.” Google had been working on the service for two years, since acquiring Trendalyzer, on whose technology the graphics are based; the company says the announcement’s timing was a coincidence. But clearly, the industry giant was acknowledging the same sort of deficit in Web search that Wolfram’s people were attacking.