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August 29: A Science Wunderkind

Lawrence Bush
August 28, 2016

Stephen Wolfram, a science wunderkind who was writing books on particle physics by the time he was bar-mitsve age and grew into an adult computer scientist, mathematician, and theoretical physicist, was born to refugees from Hitler’s Germany on this date in 1959. Wolfram received his PhD in theoretical physics from Caltech at age 20. His early scientific research was in high-energy physics, quantum field theory, and cosmology. In the 1970s, he became a leader in scientific computing, and in 1981 he became the youngest recipient of a MacArthur (“Genius”) Fellowship. Wolfram has aimed at understanding the origins of complexity in nature through computer science, and many of the techniques he has developed are now essential to the fields of artificial intelligence, artificial life, climatology, and more. Wolfram’s Mathematica program for symbolic mathematical computation is used by more than a million people, and its programming language, Wolfram Language (which he gives away free on the cloud), is a favorite of computer scientists in industry and academia (Apple’s voice-activated Siri program uses it frequently). “My big goal is make what can be done with computation as broadly accessible as possible,” he says. “You want the human to have to specify as little as possible, by putting as much intelligence into the language as possible.” Wolfram is the author of A New Kind of Science, which concludes that the universe is digital in its nature and runs on fundamental, simple programs -- a claim that, he expects, will revolutionize science.

“What makes us [human beings] different is the particulars of our history, which gives us our notions of purpose and goals. That’s a long way of saying when we have the box on the desk that thinks as well as any brain does, the thing it doesn’t have, intrinsically, is the goals and purposes that we have. Those are defined by our particulars—our particular biology, our particular psychology, our particular cultural history. The thing we have to think about as we think about the future of these things is the goals. . . . I’ve spent some significant part of my life building technology to essentially go from a human concept of a goal to something that gets done in the world.” --Stephen Wolfram

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.