Wolfram, Cellular Automata and the Computational Universe

Stephen Wolfram is an English mathematician and computer expert who is convinced that the the entire universe is essentially a computer program, consisting of no more than a few lines of code, which has been running since the beginning of time; or for about 13.7 billion years. Everything from cushions, to the laws of physics, to us, to spiral galaxies have been created by these few lines which are simply run again and again, with ever increasing levels of complexity developing from very simple origins.

I first read of his work in Marcus Chown’s book The Never-Ending Days of Being Dead, which is essentially an overview of current scientific thinking on matters of the formation and workings of the universe, collecting together and explaining the best of the current ideas from the world’s leading theoretical physicists. Wolfram gets chapter 2 all to himself, where his pioneering work on cellular automata is explained. These are essentially lines consisting of rows of black or white cells, which update themselves continually and sequentially through the application of simple rules. These simple computer programs can be shown, if allowed to run long enough, to produce remarkably complex results from the simplest of rules. Wolfram published the modestly titled A New Kind of Science in 2002, using 1,200 pages and 1000 black and white pictures to explain his findings to the rest of the scientific community. His theories seem to be as difficult to dismiss as they are likely to annoy other scientists, whose work Wolfram largely dismisses, claiming his theories encompass all of theirs anyway.

Wolfram’s work is also very heavily referenced in Katherine Hayles 2004 book My Mother is a Computer, where she is very concerned with Wolfram’s findings as they relate to her subject of analysing the current proliferation of digital media and the relationship they create with more traditional forms of communication such as speech and literature. She discusses his proposed model of reality, or “computational universe”, in the context of her interest in the Posthuman, where our subjectivity is altered by being combined with intelligent machines. Wolfram’s work with cellular automata has clearly proven very influential and contentious outside of the scientific community as well as within, as Hayles references and critiques the work of several other writers who deal with his theories during the course of her book. Hayles gives particular emphasis to the distinction between viewing Wolfram’s work as simply a metaphor for how the universe is constructed on the one hand, and the far more substantial claim that his computer codes actually generate reality on the other. Wolfram himself seems to be in no doubt that he will eventually prove the latter to be the case.


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