Is the Universe a Computer?


Everyone knows that electronic computers have enormously helped the work of science. Some scientists have had a grander vision of the importance of the computer. They expect that it will change our view of science itself, of what it is that scientific theories are supposed to accomplish, and of the kinds of theories that might achieve these goals.

I have never shared this vision. For me, the modern computer is only a faster, cheaper, and more reliable version of the teams of clerical workers (then called “computers”) that were programmed at Los Alamos during World War II to do numerical calculations. But neither I nor most of the other theoretical physicists of my generation learned as students to use electronic computers. That skill was mostly needed for number crunching by experimentalists who had to process huge quantities of numerical data, and by theorists who worked on problems like stellar structure or bomb design. Computers generally weren’t needed by theorists like me, whose work aimed at inventing theories and calculating what these theories predict only in the easiest cases.

Still, from time to time I have needed to find the numerical solution of a differential equation,1 and with some embarrassment I would have to recruit a colleague or a graduate student to do the job for me. It was therefore a happy day for me when I learned to use a program called Mathematica, written for personal computers under the direction of Stephen Wolfram. All one had to do was to type out the equations to be solved in the prescribed code, press shift-enter, and, presto, the answer would pop up on the monitor screen. The Mathematica user’s manual now sits on my desk, so fat and heavy that it does double duty as a bookend for the other books I keep close at hand.

Now Wolfram has written another book that is almost as heavy as the Mathematica user’s manual, and that has attracted much attention in the press. A New Kind of Science describes a radical vision of the future of science, based on Wolfram’s long love affair with computers. The book’s publisher, Wolfram Media, announces “a whole new way of looking at the operation of our universe” and “a series of dramatic discoveries never before made public.” Wolfram claims to offer a revolution in the nature of science, again and again distancing his work from what he calls traditional science, with remarks like “If traditional science was our only guide, then at this point we would probably be quite stuck.” He stakes his claim in the first few lines of the book: “Three centuries ago science was transformed by the dramatic new idea that rules based on mathematical equations could be used to describe the natural world. My purpose in this book is to initiate another such transformation….”

Usually I put books that make claims like these on the crackpot shelf of my office bookcase. In the case of Wolfram’s book, that would be a mistake.…

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