The Wolf…ram Who Cried Digital

A possible Wolfram’s Universe

Two weeks ago, Stephen Wolfram, announced the launch of Physics Project, a project to find the fundamental theory of physics. As he describes in a long post, Stephen discovered his core idea in the early 1980s, while he started studying the computational universe of simple programs:

even when the underlying rules for a system are extremely simple, the behavior of the system as a whole can be essentially arbitrarily rich and complex.

Since then, he has been pursuing his main intuition: Could the universe work this way? Could it in fact be that underneath all of this richness and complexity we see in physics there are just simple rules? That in fact is the whole idea of Science, Physics and, in particular, the obsession to come up with a Theory of Everything. Stephen’s approach, however, deviates from what most physicists today see as the mainstream approach, to fully align with the premises of digital physics, whereby the universe is describable by information: It from bit.

Behind digital physics, there are a number of heavy weights, names like John Archibald Wheeler, Gerard ‘t Hooft, Seth Lloyd, Edward Fredkin, or the mediatic Max Tegmark to name but a few. However, its results, beyond beauty, have not been remarkable so far. In fact, as remarkable as mainstream physics results during the last fifty years… But who might be interested in a change of paradigm which does not come with a significant leap. In science, as in politics, apart from funerals, end justify the means.

Therefore, Stephen announcement has been received with indifference, to put it mildly. Here, for example, is Sabine Hossenfelder’s reaction:

Sabine is one of the rock stars concerned with stagnation in physics, and one of the voices in physics who think that very plausibly, the main reason why we haven’t made progress is that we’re not doing the right thing. However, she does not think Wolfram physics is the way. She ridicules the idea of digital physics with one of the smart topics of the moment:

Yes, it is true “digital technology” is the hammer of our times… but, well, beware just in case the “Wolf”ram is actually coming.

Setting aside the fact of tangible results, Wolfram approach is tough and seems very difficult to prove wrong or falsify… We should have to simulated the whole universe. However, I have the hunch that one key reason why Stephen’s ideas have been ignored or marginalized is because he is one of those free spirits who do not fit into the approved moulds. Stephen has devoted a lot of effort to create Wolfram Alpha, a computational knowledge engine. He self-publishes his work, like his monumental “A New Kind of Science”, promotes it to a large audience without submitting it to a formal peer-review process, and he fails to adequately acknowledge the contributions of others working in the same field. He is an outsider. That shouldn’t matter, but it does.

I sympathize with the ideas of digital physics, and even though I can recognize some of the mistakes of Stephen Wolfram, it would be stupid not to see he is one of those beatiful minds beyond the reach of the vast majority…  If I had to bet, I think he will be judget better by the future.

Let me close with this quote from his long post:

Oh, yes, and we’re putting up a Registry of Notable Universes. It’s already populated with nearly a thousand rules. I don’t think any of the ones in there yet are our own universe—though I’m not completely sure. But sometime—I hope soon—there might just be a rule entered in the Registry that has all the right properties, and that we’ll slowly discover that, yes, this is it—our universe finally decoded.

This is exactly what I described in my short story Simulación Rasgada (Torn Simulation), one of the winners of Spanish AEFCFT Visiones 2017 award, clearly inspired by Stephen’s work. That’s the magic of beauty. Beauty is always inspiring…


Images: Wolfram Physics Project, Visual Gallery

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