X-Message-Number: 19385
Date: Mon, 1 Jul 2002 14:05:50 EDT
Subject: heavy reading

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The book must weigh at least 6 pounds--over 1200 large pages, a lot of it in 
very fine print. $45, but it was a present from Dave for Father's Day. It's  
called "A New Kind of Science," and the author is Stephen Wolfram, who 
modestly compares it to Darwin's "Origin of Species" and foresees a "major 
intellectual revolution." Publisher is Wolfram Media Inc.

As for credentials, Wolfram is billed as having earned (after Eton and 
Oxford) a CalTech Ph.D. in physics at age 20 in 1979, and a MacArthur award. 
He is CEO of Mathematica, a company selling software to mathematicians, 
programmers, scientists &  technicians.

After a few hours of rummaging around in it, I'm still not really sure what 
it's about, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would have to say it's mainly 
about the implications of cellular automata and the way in which apparently 
simple algorithms can lead to complex and unexpected, perhaps unforeseeable, 

"...the crucial idea...is that just as the rules for any system can be viewed 
as corresponding to a program, so also its behavior can be viewed as 
corresponding to a computation."  That doesn't strike me as new either, and 
in any case what we need is at least one neat, novel, and successful 
application, which so far I haven't found or haven't noticed.

My natural initial skepticism was enhanced on reading a section on free will. 
He claims to provide new insight into the free will issue, but all it boils 
down to is that we may be unpredictable. Nothing relevant 
there--predictability has nothing to do with free will, and there is nothing 
new about the difficulty or impossibility of perfect prediction. 

But one goof doesn't necessarily mean it's all baloney. And while he is 
boastful, he isn't dogmatic; he uses the words "probably" and "guess" 
liberally. If I find some pretty nuggets later on, I'll probably mention 

Robert Ettinger


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