Saturday, January 29, 2005

a-new-kind-of-business-model dept.

I have heard much talk about the book A New Kind of Science (NKS) by Dr.Stephen Wolfram, and even considered buying it. But today morning at the on-going IIT Techfest 2005, I saw a video presentation by Dr.Wolfram, and I was hooked. Because of my relative ignorance of higher mathematics, I'm afraid I do not possess the credentials to comment on its contents. But it does seem to reconfer a degree of simplicity and accessibility to science that has been eroding away with the increasing complexity we see around us. I hope to learn something new from this book, and am currently reading it on-line, though I will most certainly buy it soon :).

A word about Stephen Wolfram -- he is the creator of Mathematica, one of the most sophisticated mathematical modelling software packages out there. He is also the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research, the company that markets Mathematica software. At Rs.80,000 a pop, I do not see myself buying it in the near future, unless I manage to have a child, decide to home-school him/her, and furnish evidence for the same to Wolfram Research (which makes me eligible to buy a student copy without being a student myself). Being such an unabashed lone wolf, neither have I any hope of finding a friend with access to Mathematica and with the attendant degree of generosity and comfort to let me have a crack without an accompanying monetary transaction of any kind.

But I can afford the book, and perhaps the explorer kit that allows one to further the experiments described in the book. At this point it might be relevant to note down some of the themes Wolfram elaborated on in his two-hour live presentation:
  • Until NKS, Science has been trying to explain apparently complex phenomena with almost equally complex models and mathematical equations. There is perhaps a simpler way of looking at things by considering complexity as a net result of iterative or nested applications of simple rules.
  • The universe and all in it should be viewed as an ongoing computation. The computation throws up interesting patterns like sentient beings on a lonely planet trying to explain the state of their own being :).
  • Science in the last century was, because of the success of its empirical investigations, more obsessed with testable hypotheses (statements that clearly stated the conditions for their refutation). NKS moves the focus away back to the realm of pure mathematics, where the emphasis is more on building conceptual models of things that 'generate' physical laws iteratively. There is nothing that needs to be refuted. The state of the world is just one possible path in a pyramid of successive computations.
  • Wolfram uses the phrase NKS to refer not only to his book, but as a generic term for a new paradigm of science (In the same sense that we use the words Arithmetic or Geometry or Calculus, but with, obviously, a much wider scope of reference).
All this is very interesting, and also interesting is the way Wolfram puts out his message. When he talks, he comes across as more of a used-car salesman than a scientist. One can only marvel at the way he markets his new science:

You first buy the book, then the accessories: the explorer kit that allows you to play with some of the experiments described in the book. Then a programmatic interface to the explorer kit that presumably, plugs into Mathematica. Finally, mathematica itself, in all its license incarnations.

But his enthusiasm for the pursuit of truth seems to be genuine, and is almost infectious. Perhaps this closing anecdote would illustrate how...

At the end of his lecture, Wolfram was taking questions. An IIT academic (let us not name him) asked him very laboriously in a five-minute, rambling monologue, if he agreed that tools like Mathematica could be effectively used as educational tools. Instead of nodding his head and prosaically saying in his pucca British accent, "Yes", which was all that was expected of him, Wolfram excitedly brought up his latest Mathematica daily build, and started building a spontaneous pedagogical experiment to illustrate the convergence of Fourier series.

He would merrily have continued on into the day, if the IIT folks hadn't stopped him when time ran out.

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