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Stephen Wolfram: Idea Makers

Stephen Wolfram was kind enough to send me Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People, a new July 2016 book with biographies of famous folks around science and computing (with some personal dedication to me, great). I am just starting to read it – have gone through 2 out of the 16 heroes covered in the book – but maybe it is a better opportunity to write a review if we want to avoid all the spoilers.

The biographies were written at various points of the recent decade or so. With a bit of self-confidence, I think that you might say that they're analogous to the "birthday wishes" biographies on this blog. Except that the author, Stephen Wolfram, is way more famous than your humble correspondent and has known some folks in the list.

In the introduction, Stephen correctly says that while he spent much of his life by building the rosy future of the mankind by employing science and technology, he was getting increasingly more interested in the people and the history because those things are important for various reasons.

The first person described in the book is Richard Feynman. Stephen Wolfram has known him since the moment when Feynman was 60 and Wolfram was 18. They met many times over a decade or so. Some pages with calculations of Feynman diagrams by Feynman are included. Wolfram tells us how enthusiastic Feynman was about deriving things of any importance, how good he was in everything that needed just the 19th century calculus, how individualist he was. We are also told about their discussions about the cellular automatons and observations about them that has made Wolfram intrigued for decades.

Feynman couldn't figure out what makes the output of Wolfram's favorite "Rule 30" so complicated, if you know what I am talking about, and I speculate that this was one of the reasons why Wolfram has strengthened his belief that it's a fundamental question in the Universe. As many of you know, I don't really believe that a problem that produces a "chaotic" output – that can't be solved analytically – is fundamentally important and unique because most problems in mathematics and mathematical physics are unsolvable in this sense. On the contrary, it's the solvable problems, equations, and physical theories that form a very special subset.

The second guy is Kurt Gödel. Wolfram provides us with, in my opinion very sensible and comprehensible, description of the main idea that Gödel is famous for, and with interesting heuristic (but in my opinion still disputable) links between Gödel's theorem and the existence of difficult problems (and long proofs) in mathematics. We also learn about some Gödel's conspiracy theories, quotes etc.

Turing is the third one, I am looking for that essay as well, and there is more than one dozen of others.

You may read biographies of many heroes of science everywhere but the biographies written from the perspective of other interesting folks such as Wolfram surely bring us something more than a generic page about the mathematicians and physicists on the Internet – something that informs us about the author (Wolfram) and some of his original ideas to look at the Universe. Even after having read a fraction of the book, it seems to me that the number of original ideas and ways to look is very high.

Update: Several biographies of the 20th century men are nice but short and ordinary. Wolfram sometimes says that unfortunately, those men thought that the continuous objects and differential equations were more fundamental. They weren't as smart as myself, Wolfram, who knows that simple discrete rules produce complexity. Well, because I agree with the late mathematicians and physicists rather than Wolfram, since the continuous things are more fundamental and natural and "making mess simple" is in no way the purpose or top achievement of science, it's hard to appreciate this bragging too much.

I was impressed by the much longer chapter on Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. There are lots of facts about the personal lives, relationships but also sketches of the mechanical computers Babbage worked for and Ada's understanding of universal computation and her very crisp and explicit algorithm to compute the Bernoulli numbers from a recursive formula. Many of the algorithms are presented in Wolfram Language which I found very helpful and fresh. Also, he uses the CEO/CTO and similar terminology of modern companies for their working relationships which makes the story comprehensible as well as entertaining. Interesting speculations on "what would happen if Ada lived longer or Babbage had better P.R. skills" may be found there, too.

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