I won’t touch that except to say that I’d have paid a lot to see Wolfram and Jacques Derrida go one-on-one

May 19 '09

Not having been able to get onto the new Wolfram site, I won’t comment further on it, but I do want to take the opportunity to point to one of the great savage book-review takedowns I’ve had the pleasure to read, Cosma Shalizi’s “excoriation”: of Wolfram’s _A New Kind of Science._ Wolfram doesn’t come out it looking well, either as a scientist, or, indeed, as a human being.

bq. There is one new result in this book which is genuinely impressive, though not so impressive as Wolfram makes it out to be. This is a proof that one of the elementary CAs, Rule 110, can support universal computation. … The real problem with this result, however, is that it is not Wolfram’s. … This was done rather by one Matthew Cook, while working in Wolfram’s employ under a contract with some truly remarkable provisions about intellectual property. In short, Wolfram got to control not only when and how the result was made public, but to claim it for himself. In fact, his position was that the existence of the result was a trade secret. Cook, after a messy falling-out with Wolfram, made the result, and the proof, public at a 1998 conference on CAs. (I attended, and was lucky enough to read the paper where Cook goes through the construction, supplying the details missing from A New Kind of Science.) Wolfram, for his part, responded by suing or threatening to sue Cook (now a penniless graduate student in neuroscience), the conference organizers, the publishers of the proceedings, etc. … to deny Cook any authorship, and to threaten people with lawsuits to keep things quiet, is indeed very low. Happily, the suit between Wolfram and Cook has finally been resolved, and Cook’s paper has been published, under his own name, in Wolfram’s journal _Complex Systems._

bq. So much for substance. Let me turn to the style, which is that of monster raving egomania, beginning with the acknowledgments. Conventionally, this is your chance to be modest, to give credit to your sources, friends, and inevitably long-suffering nearest and dearest. Wolfram uses it, in five point type, to thank his drudges (including Matthew Cook for “technical content and proofs”), and thank people he’s talked to, not for giving him ideas and corrections, but essentially for giving him the opportunity to come up with his own ideas, owing nothing to them.