Stephen Wolfram (1997)

I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand it’s a triumph of computational experimental technique, taking an idea that was well-known (cellular automata) and subjecting it to rigorous exploration. This uncovers a lot of new science, not least showing that complex systems can arise from even the simplest set of rules, but also that this complexity falls into classes that show graded complexity depending purely on the fine structure of the initial conditions. That’s a massively important discovery.

On the other hand…. It’s hard to describe this as a “new kind” of science. “New science,” yes, but not indicative of a new paradigm or way of doing science, other than by emphasising the structured use of simulation. Wolfram completely over-sells what he’s achieved, making claims he can’t substantiate to aggrandise his own contributions. And that’s a shame, not least because it’s so unnecessary: Wolfram has made some important discoveries, both here and to several other branches of physics and computer science, as well as popularising computational methods and tools. It’s tragic that he doesn’t seem to be able to appreciate himself as being sufficient.

The book is also quite terribly written, being almost half-composed of footnotes, meaning a reader is constantly skipping forwards and back: difficult in print, and I suspect impossible in a digital edition unless it’s been very carefully hyperlinked. And the footnotes are often important! – indeed, they often provide evidence to back-up a claim in the main text that’s entirely unsupportable from what’s been presented. So it can be seen as both excessively long and insufficiently detailed, which is quite an achievement.

3/5. Finished Sunday 7 July, 2024.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)