Following up on our previous posts here and here . . . I came across this interview of John Conway and Siobhan Roberts, Conway’s biographer:

Siobhan, from the book I felt that there was a strong sense of competitiveness and ego in the maths world. In the research that you did, and conversations that you had with people, did you get a sense of a lot of people trying to outdo each other in the field?

SIOBHAN ROBERTS: The competitiveness does exist under the surface and there are occasional example of it coming to the fore more prominently. There were characters I encountered, Stephen Wolfram for one, for whom I think there was a bit of an unacknowledged competitive tension with John.

JOHN CONWAY: I think he acknowledges it actually. I can’t quite remember what he says in the book, but he thought I was competing with him. I’ve never thought I was competing with anyone. I do my own thing. I don’t look at what other people do. The idea of competing with them is absurd, because there’s no competition with me. How can there be? That’s a very egotistical statement, but let it stand.

I love that. Conway doesn’t mess around.

That said, Wolfram may be egotistical, but he has a lot to be egotistical about. For example,

[In 1981] to my great surprise I [Wolfram] discovered that—despite the simplicity of their construction—cellular automata can in fact produce behavior of great complexity.

That’s really something, given that John Conway & co. showed this with the Game of Life back around 1970! The wikipedia article has a good overview, also this mini-history by Wolfram makes lots of interesting connections.

To discover something in 1981 that the world had known about eleven years earlier . . . that’s truly impressive. But, if anyone can do that astounding feat, it’s this guy.

Also this:

I find history really interesting and informative, and I study it quite a lot. Usually it’s other people’s history.

Every once in awhile, though, Wolfram will break down and, with very great reluctance, talk about . . . himself.

**P.S.** Erik sent the above picture with Ocelot in the foreground and Coffee in the background that is somewhat reminiscent of time travel.

I remember Wolfram presenting his book “A New Kind Of Science” (?) around 2002 in the main auditorium at UIUC basically claiming that he had invented/discovered cellular automata and this book was his way of introducing them to the world.

ObLink, of course, to Cosma Shalizi’s review of A New Kind Of Science: http://bactra.org/reviews/wolfram/

I’d like to see NHST used to study a cellular automata. Is it possible to figure out the simple rules that way? Or would you just end up with some byzantine explanation that tries to accomodate a bunch of conflicting results?

“If I have seen farther than other men, it is only because I have taught myself how to stand on my own gigantic shoulders.”

Seriously, though: back in grad school, I discovered the Cauchy distribution. I graciously allowed Cauchy to keep his name on it.

Cauchy stole it from Poisson anyway.

This sounds a bit fishy to me.

+1

Lol

May I say what bothers me is contained in these sentences by Wolfram (in the link): ‘Von Neumann appears to have believed – presumably in part from seeing the complexity of actual biological organisms and electronic computers – that something like this level of complexity would inevitably be necessary for a system to exhibit sophisticated capabilities such as self-reproduction. In this book I show that this is absolutely not the case, but with the intuition he had from existing mathematics and engineering von Neumann presumably never imagined this.’

Jonny was so deep into the fundamentals of math that he developed ordinal counting methods. So to imply that he did not think fundamentally about something which is based on counting must be wrong. It does not match with Jonny’s mind. Nor does it match the construction: the ‘colors’ Wolfram mentions, extends very basic counting, like received an input or not, over a few additional cycles. When I paged through the diagrams in his big book, Wolfram has cycles; you need cycles or you dont generate something. So Jonny made minimal rules explicit. And that is a way of handling motivation in the model: by extending it over cycles in which ‘stuff’ occurs, you include motivation, even if you reduce that to tick-tick-tick.

Jonny is one of the smartest humans in history. It’s cool to take aim at him as an inspiration, but you have to give him full credit for what he did. Or you are lying to yourself. That is my fundamental argument with Wolfram: I think he lies to himself about what he’s accomplished. He’s done a lot but he tells himself he’s done more than he has.

One thing the Trump presidency has taught the world is the disabling effects of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, both for the patient and especially the people around the patient.

Wolfram is another example

“One thing the Trump presidency has taught the world is the disabling effects of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, both for the patient and especially the people around the patient.”

+1

That time machine is real!

Says on his Wikipedia page, “He has an extensive log of personal analytics, including emails received and sent, keystrokes made, meetings and events attended, phone calls, even physical movement dating back to the 1980s. In the preface of A New Kind of Science, he noted that he recorded over one-hundred million keystrokes and one-hundred mouse miles.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Wolfram

No way could you record all that data and get anything done without a time machine! …but wait, if you went back in time and recorded the keystrokes that you previously made, would those keystrokes used in the recording process count?

Of course, Wolfram’s CA foundations are well-known to not represent the real world (https://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0206089) and we should not celebrate creators of closed-source software. And of course he’s still on the hook for plagiarizing and appropriating his employees’ work. He’s used a lot of words for somebody who’s contributed not just nothing, but has taken away from the world.

Andrew said, “P.S. Erik sent the above picture with Ocelot in the foreground and Coffee in the background that is somewhat reminiscent of time travel.”

Aw shucks. I thought he was going to say that they were socially distancing.

I never understood the gratuitous attacks on Wolfram. I doubt a man as smart as Wolfram didn’t know about the Game of Life. It might help to actually talk to Wolfram and ask him to clarify his statements. If he’s as “egotistical” as you claim, he’d be more than willing to discuss.

Maybe it’s envy of all the money he made on Mathematica and his lack of need to grovel for money from the government and local oligopolies.

A:

Of course Wolfram knew about the Game of Life! That’s why it’s so funny that he claims that he discovered something in 1981 that had been known several years earlier. There’s no doubt that Wolfram made contributions to the study of cellular automata—take a look at the linked wikipedia article for details—it just seems that he couldn’t resist puffing up his own role. That’s just the way he is. Nobody’s perfect! We can admire Wolfram for accomplishments both in science and in business while still thinking it’s kinda funny how he writes sometimes.

Also, I have a legitimate reason to be annoyed at Wolfram, and that’s this bit of spam that I got from his company a few years ago. Dude’s got enough money at this point that he could stay on the legit, no?

> I never understood the gratuitous attacks on Wolfram. I doubt a man as smart as Wolfram didn’t know about the Game of Life. It might help to actually talk to Wolfram and ask him to clarify his statements. If he’s as “egotistical” as you claim, he’d be more than willing to discuss.

So you can’t actually explain how his statements aren’t egotism and self-promotion, but are convinced enough of Wolfram’s character that you’re sure he has a non-egotistical explanation. Why bother reading his words at all? You already know that he’s perfectly fine, why distract yourself with the details of what he actually does and says, when you already know it’s justified anyways.

> Maybe it’s envy of all the money he made on Mathematica and his lack of need to grovel for money from the government and local oligopolies.

He doesn’t have to because he jealously protects his intellectual property from the thieving hand of collaborative science. For example, he infamously took legal action against citation of a theorem produced by his employee, claiming that confirming the existence of its proof infringed on a trade secret. So yeah, I’m sure developers of superior FOSS software solutions like stan and tidyverse, or those who believe in the cause of advancing science are a little resentful. Every day he reminds them that they could easily have gotten rich if they were willing to aggressively pursue legal action against their colleagues.

Andrew, you wrote earlier in a comment (on this post):

> Of course Wolfram knew about the Game of Life! That’s why it’s so funny that he claims that he discovered something in 1981 that had been known several years earlier.

That leads me to believe that your interpretation of what Wolfram claimed is uncharitable (and inaccurate).

Wolfram’s quote again:

> [In 1981] to my great surprise I [Wolfram] discovered that—despite the simplicity of their construction—cellular automata can in fact produce behavior of great complexity.

Wolfram could be claiming to have discovered this without also claiming to have discovered it first. I independently discovered some basic mathematics myself and if I was writing for an audience that wasn’t mostly mathematicians, I’d describe that as me “discovering” those things.

Something else that I think is somewhat uncharitable is that Wolfram – again, I think – looked at many more kinds of cellular automata, and other simple systems, than the two-dimensional cellular automata that Conway, and others, studied first. I don’t know if anyone else studied as many as Wolfram did. His book – which is free and available in-full on the web – provides detailed examples of many of them, and the book’s notes provide even more. I trust that he actually studied all of that himself (to some degree) and discovered that “cellular automata can in fact produce behavior of great complexity” – in general.

Kenny said, “Wolfram could be claiming to have discovered this without also claiming to have discovered it first. I independently discovered some basic mathematics myself and if I was writing for an audience that wasn’t mostly mathematicians, I’d describe that as me “discovering” those things.”

Valid point. Indeed, many mathematicians use a “discovery” approach to teaching mathematics — and an elegant, proof of a theorem is often valued at least as much as the original proof.