I got to this article about Stephen Wolfram’s most recent attempt to “revolutionise” fundamental physics quite late, and sorry for it because I had no idea Wolfram was the kind of guy who could be a windbag. I haven’t ever had cause to interact with his work or his software company (which produced Wolfram Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha), so I didn’t know really know much about him to begin with. But I expected him, for reasons I can’t explain, to be more modest than he comes across as in the article.
The article was prompted in the first place by a preprint paper Wolfram and a colleague published earlier this year in which they claimed they had plotted a route to a fundamental theory of everything. Physics currently explains the universe with a combination of multiple theories that don’t really fit together. A ‘theory of everything’ is the colloquial name of a universal theory that many physicists argue exist and which could explain everything about the universe in a self-consistent manner.
Wolfram’s preprint paper was startling as things go not because of its substance but because a) he made no attempts to engage with the wider community of physicists that has been working on the same problem for decades, and b) for Wolfram’s insistence that those dismissing its conclusions are simply out to dismiss him. Consider the following portions:
“I do fault myself for not having done this 20 years ago,” the physicist turned software entrepreneur says. “To be fair, I also fault some people in the physics community for trying to prevent it happening 20 years ago. They were successful” [emphasis added].
“The experimental predictions of [quantum physics and general relativity] have been confirmed to many decimal places—in some cases, to a precision of one part in [10 billion],” says Daniel Harlow, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So far I see no indication that this could be done using the simple kinds of [computational rules] advocated by Wolfram. The successes he claims are, at best, qualitative.” …
“Certainly there’s no reason that Wolfram and his colleagues should be able to bypass formal peer review,” Katie Mack says. “And they definitely have a much better chance of getting useful feedback from the physics community if they publish their results in a format we actually have the tools to deal with.”
Reading of this attitude brought to mind an episode from six or seven weeks ago, after a pair of physicists had published a preprint paper modelling the evolution of the COVID-19 epidemic in India and predicting that multiple lockdowns instead of just one would work better. The paper was one of many that began to show up around that time, each set of authors fiddling with different parameters according to their sense of the world to reach markedly different conclusions (a bit of ambulance-chasing if you ask me).
The one by the two physicists was singled out for bristling criticism by other physicists because – quite like the complaints against Wolfram – their paper allegedly described a model that seemed to be able to reach any conclusion if you tweaked its parameters enough, and because the duo hadn’t clarified this and other important caveats in their interviews to journalists.
Aside 1 – In physics at least, it’s important for theories to be provable in some domains and falsifiable in others; if a theory of the world is non-falsifiable, it’s not considered legitimate. In Wolfgang Pauli’s famous words, it becomes ‘not even wrong’.
Aside 2 – Incidentally, Harlow – quoted above from the article – was one of the physicists defending physicists’ freedom to model what they will but agreed with the objection that they also need to be honest with journalists about their assumptions and caveats.
In a lengthy Facebook discussion that followed this brouhaha, someone referred to a Reddit post created three days earlier in which a physicist appealed to his peers to stop trying to model the pandemic – in his words, to “cut that shit out” – because a) no physicist could hope to do a better job than any other trained epidemiologist, and b) every model a physicist attempted could actually harm lives if it wasn’t done right (and there was a good chance it was at least incomplete).
Wolfram is guilty of the same thing: his preprint paper won’t harm lives, but the mortal threat is the only thing missing from his story; it’s otherwise rife with the same problems. His hubristic remark in the article’s denouement – that he deserves “better” questions than the ones other physicists were asking him in response to his “revolutionary” paper – indicates Wolfram thinks he’s done a great job but it’s impossible to see people like him as anything more than windbags convinced of their intellectual superiority and ability to singlehandedly wrestle hideously intractable problems to the ground. I, and likely other editors as well, have glimpsed this attitude on the part of some authors who dismiss criticism of their pieces as criticism of anything but their unclear writing, and some others who refuse to be disabused of a conviction that their conclusion is particularly fascinating.
I’d like to ask Wolfram what I’d like to ask these people as well: What have you hit on that you think others haven’t in all this time, and why do you think all of them missed it? Granted, everyone is allowed their ‘eureka’ moment, but anyone who claims it on the condition that he not be criticised is not likely to be taken seriously. More importantly, he may not even deserve to be taken seriously if only because, to adapt Mack’s line of reasoning, he undermines the very thing on which modern science is founded, the science he claims to be improving: processes, not outcomes; involving communities, not individuals.
Featured image credit: Anna Shvets/Pexels.