An Intimate Conversation with Stephen Wolfram


We recently had the privilege to talk with Stephen Wolfram at the Ninth International Conference on Complex Systems (ICCS). Wolfram is the creator of Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha and the Wolfram Language. He is also the author of A New Kind of Science and is the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. On his website it states:

“Over the course of nearly four decades, [Wolfram] has been a pioneer in the development and application of computational thinking—and has been responsible for many discoveries, inventions and innovations in science, technology and business.”

Wolfram is also one of the founding fathers of the complexity science field and was the featured keynote speaker on the first night at ICCS, hosted by the New England Complex Systems Institute. He spoke for an hour and a half at the event and was followed by a very eager crowd of followers after his talk. Many of these complexity thinkers, practitioners, students and researchers lingered to ask him questions, hoping he would elaborate on his very thought-provoking presentation. During this time, Angie and I anxiously waited in our podcast booth for him to come speak with us, and after nearly 2 hours of patiently addressing his crowd’s questions, Wolfram walked into our booth. We asked him if he was up for an interview after such a long evening, and with no hesitation he sat down and put on his microphone headset.

 Haley talking with Stephen Wolfram, day one of ICCS 

Haley talking with Stephen Wolfram, day one of ICCS 

At the start of our conversation, Wolfram talked about his first introduction to ideas of complex systems when he was 12 years old. He discovered a book on Statistical Physics at this young age and his untethered curiosity would soon lead him to become a prodigy in the field of physics, writing his first scientific paper at the age of 15 and graduating from Caltech with a PhD in Theoretical Physics by the age of 20. 

Throughout his career, his fascination with physics and complex systems research would continue in parallel with his other passion for scientific computing. Driven by intrigue and eager to understand the origins of complexity in nature, he built himself a tool called cellular automata to study the behavior of simple computer programs. These computing experiments with cellular automata would lead him to some very surprising discoveries about the basic science of complexity.

I discovered what is now called ‘emergence’ through the surprising complexity of simple programs in the computational universe.
— Stephen Wolfram, episode 101

Wolfram explained in a grateful tone that his career has continued to iterate between intensive complexity research and scientific computing and each of these two fields have led to discoveries in the other. He called himself lucky to be in his position, having passions which align in such a reinforcing way. His only disappointment was that he didn’t engage more in unifying a complexity community that could focus intently on basic science research. After many attempts to bring together a very undefined and nebulous community of complexity researchers in the 1980’s, he reached a crossroads in his professional life. Wolfram would chose to shift his focus away from building community and toward building the computing tools he needed to improve his research and in 1988 he created Mathematica.

Although Wolfram looked back on this decision with some regret, his career has been extremely successful and influential to the complexity science community. His widely-acclaimed, best-selling book, A New Kind of Science, rocked the scientific community with paradigm shifting concepts and ideas, and his later work with Wolfram Alpha has empowered computing agents like Suri with artificial intelligence, a growing field closely connected with ideas in complex systems science.

The fact that Wolfram has any sort of regret about his influence on the complexity community  demonstrates his undying passion for the field itself. His belief that the basic science of complexity should be foundational to everyone’s educational journey is his truth and his passion. Education has also played a large role in his life and career. He founded the Wolfram Summer School in 2003 and has been working to introduce young people to modern computational thinking.

What we haven’t yet done with the basic science of complexity is make it extremely clear that it’s an underpinning of what people should learn.
— Stephen Wolfram, episode 101

Toward the end of our conversation, we asked Wolfram for his advice for complexity science researchers. He explained that researchers have to make sure they are asking the right questions before they focus on execution and methodology. He went on to say, “strategy is critical in research” so even though it sounds paradoxical, complexity researchers really need to keep is simple and focus on foundational questions because the foundational questions are more likely to survive over time.

We are so glad we asked him this question about complexity research because we feel there is something very intimidating about this kind of research. The name itself could instill doubt in any researcher, but Wolfram’s advice was very grounding and useful. He even gave examples from his own research projects and how he has slowly chipped away at the foundational questions of complexity science.

What we found extremely profound in meeting and talking with Wolfram was how he not only helped to define the field of complexity, he embodied complexity itself. His description of his life and work exemplified path dependence and many other ideas and concepts he has researched. Reinforcing feedback loops continue to guide his work and he embraces the emergence of his research, allowing it to shape the tools he builds. He lives and breathes for this adaptation, which makes his work more useful and relevant for himself as well as others. There is a sense of harmony and coherence in his professional journey, a pattern that has emerged from several other guests we have talked with on the HumanCurrent. To say that our conversation with Stephen Wolfram was inspirational is an understatement. He has shifted our mental models and widened our perceptions about what is possible in this incredible field. 

Cheers to complexity!

You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don't forget to subscribe in iTunes. Be sure to listen to our interview with Stephen Wolfram

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