Stephen Wolfram, computer scientist, physicist, and CEO of software company Wolfram Research (behind Wolfram Alpha and Mathematica) made headlines this week when he launched the Wolfram Physics Project. The blog post announcing the project explains that he and his collaborators claim to have “found a path to the fundamental theory of physics,” that they’ve “built a paradigm and framework,” and that they now need help with all of the computation to see if it works. Unfortunately, it seems that Wolfram is using his wealth and influence to bypass responsible science.
Here’s the background. It’s absolutely true that Wolfram is a smart man; he has a particle physics PhD from Caltech, which he finished at the age of 20. He went on to study computer simulations of cellular automata, which are essentially systems of discrete units, like pixels on a screen, where each unit evolves by following a set of rules relating to the units around it as time progresses. John Conway’s Game of Life is the perhaps most famous example of cellular automata, where after each successive time unit, pixels turn on or off based on how many pixels are on or off around them, causing complex shapes and behaviors to arise from basic rules. Wolfram went on to start a successful software company, but in the mean time, he continued researching cellular automata. This led to his controversial but popular self-published 2002 book, A New Kind of Science, and now the Wolfram Physics Project, which is his newest effort to recruit scientific talent in order to build a fundamental theory of the universe based on his research.
After decades of studying cellular automata, Wolfram along with two other physicists came up with the idea that the fundamental rules of physics emerge out of smaller, less-meaningful rules, sort of like how larger structures grow from simpler steps in the cellular automata he was studying. Basically, it’s saying that the universe runs on a core set of rules, like a computer does, out of which more complexity arises. Now, the team is undertaking a centralized effort to develop their theory into something bigger by verifying its hypotheses. They’re also publishing their work open source and are calling upon academics outside the centralized effort to learn about the proposal, verify calculations, and run simulations. Essentially, they’re asking academics from diverse fields to demonstrate that the framework explains their own disciplines, and they want physicists to come up with predictions based on the framework that experiments could test.
For those of you who do want to look over Wolfram’s proposal, there’s a 448-page white paper online. But some physicists aren’t excited about Wolfram’s project and say he’s essentially buying himself influence in the field before waiting for peer review.
“In the physics community we have a process for evaluating new ideas called ‘peer review.’ Being rich isn’t a ‘get out of peer review free’ card,” said University of New Hampshire physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein in a tweeted statement. “I refuse to give time to the work [of] someone who doesn’t respect the community standards that I am required to obey. I am sorry to see journalists cover this, which will surely get more press than anything any barrier-breaking black scientist does this year.”
Caltech physicist Sean Carroll tweeted: “Stephen Wolfram and collaborators propose a new approach to physics based on discrete automata. Cool and fun! But: please please don’t get too excited until others look it over. Science is collaborative, it takes time, and most bold ideas are wrong.”
These critiques mirror those that accompanied Wolfram’s book. But they come down to the fact that Wolfram has isolated himself from the physics community, self-publishes his work, and promotes it to a large audience without submitting it to a formal peer-review process. That’s why many other scientists do not take him seriously.
It is absolutely possible that Wolfram has stumbled upon a deeper truth about the universe. But at the moment, he’s just another physicist with an idea. This idea should be taken as skeptically as any other that claims to explain the entire universe, meaning outside experts should check that it doesn’t contain glaring errors. Any strong hypothesis should be able to tell us something new and testable about the universe. While a Q+A on the matter says that the theory produces testable predictions, it also contains a worrying statement: Basically, Wolfram says that his idea cannot be proven wrong, writing that “Any particular rule could be proved wrong by disagreeing with observations, for example predicting particles that do not exist. But the overall framework of our models is something more general, and not as directly amenable to experimental falsification. Asking how to falsify our framework is similar to asking how one would prove that calculus could not be a model for physics. An obvious answer would be another model successfully providing a fundamental theory of physics, and being proved incompatible.” In other words, Wolfram is saying you can only prove him wrong by coming up with your own framework that solves all the mysteries of the cosmos.
A bigger-picture look at Wolfram’s work and publishing strategy reveals the unequal way new scientific ideas are treated. As a multi-millionaire (probably billionaire) who mirrors the stereotype of the solitary, white, male genius, Wolfram is able to build a beautiful website, corral collaborators, and garner lots of media coverage in order to push his idea to the forefront, outside the framework that other scientists have to operate in. Meanwhile, just last week, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that demographically underrepresented students tend to be more innovative, but their contributions are more likely to be discounted by their peers and less likely to get them into a tenure-track position. In other words, you probably wouldn’t be hearing about this new “fundamental theory of physics” if a black woman had devised it.
Beyond that, the work promotes the unrealistic view that science is driven by single “Einsteins” coming along and rewriting everything with their paradigm-blasting ideas. This isn’t how it works—even Albert Einstein’s work built off of the research of physicists who predated him and has required testing by countless of scientists since then. In Wolfram’s case, at best the work is correct, and history will remember Wolfram’s name for research that was done by many people as part of the Wolfram Physics Project. At worst, countless hours of scientists’ time have been devoted to one rich man’s monomaniacal pursuit of explaining the universe in a way that looked nice but didn’t work at all. These are resources that could have instead been divided among countless other viable ideas.
In sum, the universe is the way it is, and we’ll figure it out sooner, later, or never. Wolfram has presented one idea as to how it works, but the only footing it has over other proposals is the fact that a wealthy and famous guy came up with it and therefore has the resources to draft people to see if it works. But it takes rigorous review in order to determine whether a proposal is valid and valuable—and if a scientist is promoting a work before it receives any peer review, maybe you should question whether it holds any water.