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Calling All Science and Cosmology Weenies.(13 posts)

Calling All Science and Cosmology Weenies.Jon Billheimer
Aug 4, 2002 9:11 AM
The latest rage and outrage in cosmological speculation is Stephen Wolfram's idea that complexity in the universe has arisen from a basic, simple binary program. This idea came from his experimentation years ago with simple computer programs called cellular automata. These simple programs surprisingly generated complex visual patterns on his computer screen, including images resembling veins in a leaf, elegant snowflakes, etc., when only very simple, regular patterns such as checkerboards or triangles were expected.

Wolfram's work and speculations have been published in his 1200-page "A New Kind of Science." Although this guy is a genius in theoretical physics, biologists are outraged by his so-called lack of understanding of biological complexity. Others, however, find his paradigm intriguing. The heart of his argument is that his computer patterns are as complex and intricate as any object in nature, and that therefore his screen images and objects in nature must have a common origin. He calls this the principle of computational equivalence.

So...is this guy a crackpot or an inductive genius?
re: Calling All Science and Cosmology Weenies.koolaid
Aug 4, 2002 7:53 PM
Think about the artificial monolith amid the natural elements in the opening scenes of the movie '2001'. Wolfram sees a shift from artificial complicated mathematical equations and questions to simple computer programs doing very complex natural order things.
His vision includes the idea of universal computation as the reality of both the natural and new artificial systems. His early work on cellular automata gave him insight into the limits we place on our imagination. Again that paradigm shift, from thinking that to do complicated things we need to set up systems with complicated rules to having simple underlying rules, like cellular automata, doing all sorts of complicated things.
Wolframs ideas and studies may help us understand that science and technology may need this kind of thinking shift to get us to simple technological paths that in themselves, in a natural order way, lead to ever increasing complicated ends. Those paths have large consequences in the areas of artificial intelligence and how computers and their programs interact with our lives.
re: Calling All Science and Cosmology Weenies.Jon Billheimer
Aug 4, 2002 8:25 PM
Right on. And computer programs and a.i. are his area of interest and expertise. However, he's now generalizing his observations to include natural phenomena and cosmology. Although his inductive reasoning is interesting, what pisses everyone off is that he doesn't have any causative or mechanistic data to back up the generalization. The paradigm is sure interesting though and has all sorts of philosophical ramifications if it turns out to have any sort of experimental or empirical validity.
re: Calling All Science and Cosmology Weenies.critmass
Aug 4, 2002 10:24 PM
I sense he is trying to get people to think differently about systems. Not only with the type of paradigm shift Koolaid mentioned but also with a shift in intuition. To get people to see the limits of their thinking you may have to challenge their approach. Wolfram's intuitive instincts tell him to challenge the essence of how people are approaching science and technology problems. That kind of challenge causes problems. Don't forget he is both a scientist and a Thinker. The intuitive Thinker can be at odds with the scientist. How many shifts of thinking have started from one man intuitively challenging people to think in new ways.

Wolfram thinks the invention of software is of the same magnitude as the invention of tools. He is thinking about a "universal" computer that will be a tool that can do anything. That level of thinking is way beyond where I am. However, I do like my mind challenged and can appreciate someone who tries to get me to think beyond existing science and technology limits. That is what I see as Wolfram's role.
I agreekoolaid
Aug 5, 2002 7:30 AM
"The really valuable thing is intuition. Without it, I could not see how to begin." Albert Einstein
re: Calling All Science and Cosmology Weenies.peloton
Aug 6, 2002 4:58 AM
I'll be honest and say that I haven't read his work. I would say though that if his argument is that computer patterns are as complex and intricate as anything found of biological origin than I would find his argument flawed. No doubt computer programs are complex and intricate, but we as human completely understand them because they are of our creation. We only have a theory as to why muscle tissue contracts- ie; the sacromere shortening theory. We don't even come close to understanding the beauty and secrets of biology and other natural sciences. At least we understand computers (well, some of us- maybe not me!) I would think to compare anything that mankind has produced to nature itself is just mankind thinking too much of it's self. The more I learn about biology and physiology, the more I realize how much we don't know.

As a side note- Jon, you have to read more than anyone on this board with all the subjects you weigh in on articulately.
what if you were to code the human body?DougSloan
Aug 6, 2002 5:48 AM
How much storage capacity do you think it would take to store every piece of information about the human body in computer code? Assuming it's even possible, I would think that would be something around a gazillion or so bytes?

Doug
You both should read his work.critmass
Aug 6, 2002 7:03 AM
As Wolfram said in "A New Kind of Science': "Some never seem to imagine how limited their imagination is. Some always seem to assume that what one can't foresee isn't possible".
You both should read his work.Jon Billheimer
Aug 6, 2002 8:20 AM
I didn't read the 1200-page tome, just a thought provoking summary and review! His central observation is not about the complexity of a computer program itself, but that growing complexity can arise from a simple program expected to produce only simple, regular, and fixed visual patterns. If this sort of thing is possible in a computer program, since mathematical laws are held to be universally valid, Wolfram is saying that similar or greater levels of complexity possibly arise in nature from an original but simple binary program.

This fuels philosophical speculations, then, that a program requires a programmer. So we're back to Descartes' cogito! (Some intuitions do seem universal!) Theologically one is reminded of the Logos. Does god write in binary code???:)-
Not read it, not sure if I appreciate what he's saying...Wayne
Aug 6, 2002 8:47 AM
you say, "Wolfram is saying that similar or greater levels of complexity possibly arise in nature from an original but simple binary program." My only question to that statement is what's his proof? Why would it necessarily be binary, just because we can think of that as the simplest system?

Clearly complexity can arise out of simplicity but does that necessarily mean the simplest? Look at a human being, each codon in a gene only codes for 1 of 22 (or so ?) amino acids. So you could say everything you are could be broken down into 22 essential "elements". Add those together and you get a myriad of proteins, add on and off switchs, negative and positive feedback loops, etc. and you get a creature with the capacity to love, hate, dream, and wonder about the origins of the universe. That's pretty impressive complexity from simplicity!
You both should read his workSintesi
Aug 6, 2002 9:24 AM
Where did you read the summary? Scientific American again? May have to get a subscription. I'd like to see the article. I think the DNA code idea is the new theological "out" for many believers, as you state, one cannot imagine a code without a "codewriter." Of course this approach has been duly criticized in the past.

This book seems to imply that seemingly complex systems don't need to be so complex after all, or at least can come from realtively humble origins. Does the code follow some sort of algorithm and grow more complex organically following it's own rules? I'm no mathematician but am I close?

BTW, thanks for the interesting post. A little science here and there ain't so painful, now is it? ; )
You both should read his work.critmass
Aug 6, 2002 11:26 AM
Like I said in my first post there are two sides to Wolfram. One is in the book 'A New Kind of Science' the other in his Mathematica research. Both are about exploration and experimentation. Both are about predictive theory. In 'A New Kind of Science' he is trying to get people to foresee the shapes of natural bodies rather than to have to settle for explaining them in retrospect. In Mathematica he is building devices than mimic biological systems as complex as the human eye.
I have not read the review you refer to. In his book I see him presenting intuitive observational mathematics rather than some true binary code of creation or inductive scientific study. You make the comparison of cellular automation and Descartes. Could the real comparison be of Wolfram and Galilei. Vision and genius can sometimes see things that elude the rest of us.
In the reaction to the book I find amusing that even with the Physicists dreams of an ultimate 'equation', seen as a flawed approach by Wolfram, Physicists are the ones that are finding his theories the most intriguing. Maybe the mechanisms of fluid dynamics and the universality of the second law of thermodynamics capture Wolfram's new way of thinking better than his other approaches in the book. With his questioning the importance of natural selection in evolution, the weakest part of the book, I can see why Biologists are not too excited about the book
You both should read his work.Jon Billheimer
Aug 6, 2002 1:10 PM
The review appeared in this Sunday's Reader Section of the Edmonton Journal. Interestingly, the writer drew a comparison between Wolfram and Copernicus with respect to his intuitive genius and search for a new paradigm.

To one of the above-posters, Wolfram doesn't have any hard scientific data to back up his thesis. For this reason his thinking is inductive and intuitive rather than deductive. He's saying that the laws of mathematics apply equally in nature as in a computer program, and if simple binary code can give rise to unexpected and ongoing complexity the same principle must apply in nature. Because he has not/or cannot back this up experimentally with proteins, etc. biologists and scientists in related fields are more than skeptical of his thesis. However, physicists and mathematicians (naturally) are intrigued.