Thursday, July 03, 2003

Some weekends C-Span's Book TV has nothing I'm interested in, and some weekends---like the past one-there were several hours of stuff which I tape and check out through the following week. I just watched an hour's interview with Steven Wolfram about his book, A New Science.

The interviewer, whose name I forget, was a a TV reporter who got his rep by being able to communicate fairly complex ideas in a creative, clever and ironic way. He wasn't bad, but he kept coming back to this idea of Wolfram's ambition and ego in claiming to be creating a new science. That's the conventional wisdom on Wolfram and his book. (His web site is full of hype, so there's some basis I suppose.) But unfortunately for the interviewer, this was entirely undercut by Wolfram, not just his appearance and demeanor, but by what he had to say. He made a discovery, a very simple one (that complex phenomena, and randomness as well, can be generated over time by a few simple rules applied to the behavior of very simple phenomena), that he came to believe can account for complexity in many of the realms in which science tries to explain why things are they way they are.

I can't even begin to judge his theories (though what he said about how his ideas affect the theories of biological evolution made good sense to me), but I was able to get a feel for the theorist, and it seems to me that his ideas should be judged and debated on the merits, and not on whether or not he developed them in a prestigious university or think tank, or circulated a peer-reviewed manuscript, or even that his claims are large and his ad campaign is obnoxious.

I've read an article that accuses him of misrepresenting the work of others, and taking a lot of credit he isn't due. This is troubling and does damage his credibility. The evaluation of his theories, and whether he makes claims for them that are much too large, is underway, and that's a good thing.

He may turn out to be a genius of the age, or he may not. But doubts about his credibility have to be stated and confronted, not turned into fashionable snideness and follow-the-leader image-making. Evaluate his theories on the merits. Maybe he has hogged the limelight by his ability to buy exposure. But that means that his part of the debate gets stated, and others can answer him, and put these issues of randomness, complexity, and the nature of time, into the public discussion. Considering that relativity and quantum theory began in the early twentieth century, it's about time.

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