Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reading A New Kind of Science

Recently checked out the gargantuan tome (1197 textbook sized pages), A New Kind of Science, by Stephen Wolfram. Not that I expect to get through the entire thing, or even a significant portion of it. But I've been wanting to take a look at it for ages.

Loosely, Wolfram intends to present some kind alternative framework for conceptualizing science (and, if I understand him correctly, practically every other field--philosophy, art, etc.) building from the principles of cellular automata. The main theme in the intro thus far is that simple systems can yield very complex results.

That's all well and good, a fascinating project. I have to say, however, that I'm a bit irritated by his style of prose. From what I've read so far, Mr. Wolfram has repeated that same basic idea--"complexity can arise from simplicity"--about 400 times more than he has actually needed to. He changes the words he uses, but essentially he keeps repeating the same idea without really adding anything to it. For the span of several pages he talks about how his new framework will benefit specific disciplines (biology, physics, mathematics, etc.) running through a list with a paragraph for each. And each paragraph essentially states the same basic idea, generically adapted to the subject at hand.

Seriously, Stephen. Your book is already an ungodly length without you adding what feels to me very much like pointless filler. I'm getting the impression that he likes to "hear himself write", so to speak.

I also take issue with a seeming arrogance Wolfram displays: he can't quite emphasize enough that this is all due to his discoveries and ideas, and this is the first time anyone has approached these problems from this particular angle, etc.

Which may be true to some degree. Certainly Wolfram's earlier work with cellular automata introduced the world to new classes of automata that had not been previous examined. But I feel that he relishes telling us about the magnitude of his own accomplishments a little much.

All that said, I'm just being picky here. I still intend to read more of the book, and I hope it will improve as it gets more into the heart of the matter.

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