Speaking to a large crowd in McCosh 50 yesterday evening, Stephen Wolfram, creator of the popular computer program Mathematica, said that all of nature can be modeled by computer programs based on one simple rule or pattern. The difficulty, he said, is finding the right rule.
"Really simple rules lie underneath some complex behavior in nature, such as snowflakes," Wolfram said. "By studying these simple programs, one might be able to see what's going on [in nature], which is very exciting."
Wolfram, author of the recent book "A New Kind of Science," said that the key lies in cellular automata, computer programs that generate patterns by following recursive rules. Such a program can generate extremely complex forms because, unlike an engineer, it does not generate patterns with an end product in mind.
"As a result, even extremely simple [cellular automata] can produce immensely complex behavior," he said.
The forms these programs produce can imitate nature, Wolfram said. He illustrated this by using Mathematica to show how cellular automata can model leaves, snowflakes, and other natural forms.
Initially a particle physicist — he received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in theoretical physics at the age of 20 — Wolfram became interested in the formation of intricacies in nature from a mathematical perspective. This led him to try to use computer programs to study natural forms.
In describing his work in the computing field, Wolfram said that he "feels like a naturalist in the computational universe, wandering from place to place seeing what lies under each rock."
In one of the lighter moments of the lecture, Wolfram said that there are certain benefits to being the creator of Mathematica.
"One of the greatest things about being the CEO of Mathematica is that I get to use the latest version, like the one built last night," Wolfram said.
Wolfram, regarded as a worldwide leader in computer and software technology, was educated at Eton and Oxford before attending Caltech.
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