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A New Kind of Science
Jamais Cascio, 10 Feb 04

Stephen Wolfram is smart. Very, very smart. As a young man, he developed software able to do all sorts of high-level, sophisticated mathematics, and went on to form a company to sell it. Once he got the company up and running, he decided to spend the next few years writing a book on the use of software models for interpreting the way the world works. The resulting tome -- a massive, 700+ page treatise -- was called A New Kind of Science, and it argued that the world around us, from physics and biology to economics and group behavior, could be understood as the complex result of simple elements. The reactions of those who got through it ranged from outright dismissal to full-on epiphany, with quite a few variations on "huh?". The enormous physical size and high price didn't engender high sales, however, so not many people actually had a chance to find out for themselves whether Wolfram is on the right track.

Well, you can now. The entire book, along with commentary, notes, downloadable images, software, and corrections, is now available online at I'd suggest reading chapter 1, skimming 2-6 -- he spends a great deal of time establishing the myriad nuances of software models of complexity -- and reading in detail again with chapters 7+. You may not agree with his interpretations of reality, but your brain will still get a workout.

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I think the book was less than $45US, so relatively inexpensive. But as a free resource available to all, it is invaluable.

I have not read the entire book (note to Dr. W: there's these people called editors), but it has greatly changed the way I think about the world and approach problems. It is much easier to create a simple model with simple rules and run it through your head, than to try to come up with precise mathematical models. Models become disposable or malleable and improve as the objects and rules improve. Scientific theory of karma, kinda.

My son goes to the "best" private school in my city and I've been begging them to introduce these concepts. They are very simple and most children would intuitively grasp them immediately, very gamelike, mind legos. History becomes understandable, quantum theory should also be taught early before Newtonian thinking solidifies.

I also recommend StarLogo, ALife program free from MIT. My 10 year-old son is doing his science fair project using it.

Posted by: cheney_usa on 10 Feb 04

A New Kind of Science is a fabulous book; it definitely cracked my head open, particularly about memetics and social software.

Ditto on the editor, it was a bit bulky and scared off many potential readers because of its ponderousness. On the other hand, who'd want the daunting task of editing this beast?

Posted by: Rayne on 10 Feb 04

I liked the first couple of chapters a lot (as far as I got before it came due at the library :-), because it made me realize I wasn't crazy to be logically-minded but still not too fond of math. At last, another way of understanding the universe scientifically besides mathematics! He's right--that's huge.

But yes, he needs an editor to take on both his style and his ego. It's great they put the book online, but I wish it had search and replace--I'd replace the phrase "a new kind of science," which appears at least once a paragraph until you want to scream, with, well, anything, X. A quick search shows it appears almost 5000 times. So I wasn't imagining it! (Obviously this new kind of science needs a name.)

Posted by: Jeff Rusch on 12 Feb 04

Thanks for the link to the online book - I've been wanting to read it, but books are rather hard to come by here. Well, the books I want to read, anyway.

Posted by: Taran on 15 Feb 04



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