The Last Theory
The Last Theory
The Last Theory
9 April 2024

In defence of Stephen Wolfram

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You like Stephen Wolfram, right?

I mean, if he’s to be believed, he has reinvented physics, not to mention philosophy.

How could you not like such a thinker?

Well... it turns out that there are plenty of people who don’t like Stephen Wolfram... or his physics... or his philosophy.

Here are four criticisms of Stephen Wolfram I regularly hear...

...and here’s why these criticisms, though they hint at uncomfortable truths, nonetheless miss the mark.

When Stephen Wolfram announced his new approach to physics, scientists unanimously applauded it as the most fundamental scientific breakthrough of our time.

Wait, that’s not right... that’s not what happened at all.

The few scientists who deigned to say anything about it were roundly critical of Stephen Wolfram.

Perhaps the most damning put-down came from the physicist Freeman Dyson. “There’s a tradition of scientists approaching senility to come up with grand, improbable theories,” he said. “Wolfram is unusual in that he’s doing this in his forties.”


Since I launched The Last Theory, my exploration of Wolfram Physics, I’ve regularly heard complaints from viewers of my videos that Stephen Wolfram is a self-promoter, that his claims are overblown, that he refuses to submit to peer review, that he fails to give credit where credit is due.

And you know what, my viewers might have a point.

Let’s take those criticisms one at a time.

Criticism #1: Self-promotion

Stephen Wolfram is everywhere.

He has given TED talks. He has been on everyone’s podcast. He has put out countless hours of video.

He has a habit of naming things after himself, from Wolfram Alpha to Wolfram Omega.

(Wolfram Omega? That’s a thing, right? Well, if it’s not, it probably will be some time soon.)

If you were wondering why his earliest product, Mathematica, missed out on the Wolfram prefix, well, don’t worry, it is now referred to on the Wolfram Research web site as Wolfram Mathematica.

Doesn’t all this leave Stephen Wolfram open to the criticism that he’s maybe a bit too self-promotional?

Well, yes.

To be clear, sometimes what Stephen Wolfram is promoting is not himself, but his company, Wolfram Research.

Criticising Wolfram Research for naming a product Wolfram Mathematica is like criticising Apple for naming a product Apple Vision Pro. Wolfram is the brand, just like Apple is the brand.

If you run a company on which 800 people depend for their livelihoods, then it’s incumbent on you to promote the company’s products. Otherwise no one will hear about those products, and 800 people will be out of work.

Admittedly, the reason this seems self-promotional, in Wolfram’s case, is that he named his company after him_self_. That’s not something I would ever do, but then, I don’t have such a solid, scientific-sounding name as Wolfram.

It’s the same with ideas.

If you have an idea that might, you know, solve physics, then sure, you could keep quiet about it, and your idea will die.

But if you have an idea that might, you know, solve physics, then wouldn’t it be better to shout about it to anyone who’ll listen, to give your idea a chance of catching on?

We have a romantic notion that brilliant ideas will magically surface without their progenitors’ compromising their purity by putting their ideas out there.

But it’s not true.

The history of science is littered with examples of brilliant ideas that were lost for decades or centuries because too few people heard about them. Think of Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of motion, or Gregor Mendel’s discoveries in genetics, or Nikola Tesla’s invention of radio.

We live in a noisy world. Can you blame Stephen Wolfram for wanting his ideas to be heard?

Criticism #2: Overblown claims

Stephen Wolfram isn’t shy of making bold claims.

He says he may have a path to a fundamental theory of physics.

Wait, no, he’s bolder than that, he says he may have a path to the fundamental theory of physics.

He claims to have answers to questions that have perplexed physicists and philosophers for millennia:

Yes, you heard me right: Stephen Wolfram claims to have an answer to the question of why the universe exists.

He seems surprised at how little discussion there has been of this question, or his answer.

Doesn’t all this leave Stephen Wolfram open to the criticism that his claims are maybe a bit overblown, that he’s maybe a bit bombastic?

Well, yes.

The sheer scope of his statements makes it seem as if he wants to plant as many flags as he can, across as wide an area as possible, to stake out his claims to all physics and all philosophy.

There are different ways to think about this.

He might be right. He might truly have the answers to all these age-old questions.

He might be wrong. He might, as Freeman Dyson suggested, be a foolish old man who has deluded himself into thinking that he has discovered the secrets of life, the universe and everything.

Or he might just be a curious person playing with big ideas.

Who’s to say?

There’s something about this particular criticism of Stephen Wolfram – that he’s bombastic – that makes me very uncomfortable.

It comes close to the old British put-down: “he has ideas above his station”.

Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci had been told that it wasn’t his place to seek answers to the age-old questions. Imagine if Aristotle had been told this, or Galileo, or Newton, or Einstein.

You might be thinking: “But that’s Leonardo! he was a genius! Wolfram’s no Einstein!” Remember, though: no one knew that Leonardo was Leonardo until Leonardo became Leonardo.

In the kind of society I want to live in, no one would dictate who can and who can’t play with big ideas.

Criticism #3: No peer review

The most common criticism I’ve heard of Stephen Wolfram is that he hasn’t submitted his work to peer review.

Full disclosure: I haven’t submitted what I’m saying now, or anything else I’ve said on The Last Theory, to peer review. I just put it out there, without asking anyone’s permission. I know, shocking, right?

When Stephen Wolfram announced his new approach to physics, there were immediate complaints from physicists that he’d dared to put it out there without their permission.

The physicist Sean Carroll said: “It’s hard to expect physicists to comb through hundreds of pages of a new theory out of the blue.”

OK... so... don’t. No one’s forcing you to. If a new theory doesn’t seem interesting to you, don’t read it. I mean, millions of pages of peer reviewed papers are published every year, I bet you don’t comb through all those either.

And if you don’t like a new theory to come out of the blue, then you’re free to confine yourself to the old theories with which physicists have made no progress in the last 50 years.

If, on the other hand, you’re open to new ideas in physics, you’ll find Stephen Wolfram’s announcement of his physics project to be a brilliant 67-page introduction that’s far more readable than the millions of pages of peer-reviewed papers.

The physicist Katie Mack admitted, strangely reluctantly, that “We do want to find better, more complete theories. But,” she added, “the way we go about that is to test and refine our models, look for inconsistencies and incrementally work our way toward better, more complete models.”

Well, that’s a fine way of doing physics, but it’s not the only way to do physics. Nothing about what Aristotle, Galileo, Newton or Einstein did was incremental. Nothing about what Born, Dirac, Heisenberg, Schrodinger or Pauli did when they formulated quantum mechanics was incremental. These physicists didn’t work their way toward better, more complete models, they threw out the old models and came up with new models that were disconcertingly different.

When did that become a problematic way of doing physics?

I don’t want to be too hard on Sean Carroll, Katie Mack or any of the other critics.

(Sean Carroll, to his credit, later interviewed Stephen Wolfram on his Mindscape podcast, giving him a good 2½ hours to promote his ideas.)

These critics are echoing the conventional wisdom in academia, that peer review is needed to prevent bad science.

I disagree.

I think that peer review prevents good science.

And I’m not the only one. In his article The rise and fall of peer review, Adam Mastroianni describes peer review as a scientific experiment, one that has demonstrably failed either to eliminate bad science or to encourage good science.

I wrote about this in my article Peer review is suffocating science.

I don’t want to be too hard on the critics, because I think their embrace of peer review, and their evisceration of anyone, like Stephen Wolfram, who circumvents it, is in the regrettably anti-Enlightenment air we now breathe.

Which tenet of the Enlightenment holds that you’re not allowed to come up with ideas on your own?

Which tenet of the Enlightenment holds that you’re not allowed to shout about your ideas to anyone who’ll listen?

The Enlightenment holds that Galileo, for instance, should have been free to claim that there are mountains on the Moon, and that Jupiter has its own moons, and that the Earth moves around the Sun, without submitting his ideas to the authorities for approval... however preposterous these ideas might have seemed at the time.

The same goes for Stephen Wolfram and his overblown claims.

Thought thrives when no one can tell you what you can think and what you can’t think.

Criticism #4: Taking credit

For me, the criticism of Stephen Wolfram that comes closest to the mark is the accusation that he doesn’t give credit where credit is due.

Stephen Wolfram wasn’t the first person to propose a computational model of physics. He wasn’t the first to find applications of cellular automata in science. He wasn’t the first to suggest that space and time might be discrete.

Yet he rarely mentions anyone who came before him. It’s as if he’s the lone genius, as if no one else contributed to these ideas.

And Stephen Wolfram isn’t the only person working on this computational model of physics. Indeed, it took Jonathan Gorard and Max Piskunov to goad him into launching the Wolfram Physics Project.

Yet he rarely mentions his collaborators. Again, it’s as if he’s the lone genius, as if no one else contributed to these ideas.

Doesn’t all this leave Stephen Wolfram open to the criticism that he’s maybe a bit eager to take all the credit?

Well, yes.

Stephen Wolfram is a brilliant thinker, but he’s not the only brilliant thinker working on these ideas.

In particular, Jonathan Gorard has done much of the hard mathematical work to derive real physics from the abstract model.

I’ve heard Stephen Wolfram refer to Jonathan Gorard as his young collaborator, without so much as mentioning his name.

This failure to give credit where credit is due isn’t just bad form, it’s self-destructive.

I’ve quoted the Jesuit priest named Strickland before, who said: “A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.”

There’s a corollary. If you do care who get the credit, you won’t be able to do as much good.

Be generous in giving credit to those who have earned it, and they’ll want to work with you.

Take it all for yourself, and you’ll soon find yourself isolated.

For Stephen Wolfram, that’s a problem, since, for all his brilliance, he won’t find the fundamental theory of physics alone.

Ad hominem

I hear these criticisms of Stephen Wolfram all the time:

  • he’s a self-promoter;
  • his claims are overblown;
  • he refuses to submit to peer review;
  • he fails to give credit where credit is due.

Too often, the critic’s very next words are a summary dismissal of Stephen Wolfram’s ideas.

Wolfram is a flawed individual, the argument goes, therefore Wolfram’s ideas are wrong.

Obviously, this is nonsense.

Flawed individuals can have beautiful ideas.

I’ve barely mentioned Stephen Wolfram’s ideas in this article, which is a shame. They really are beautiful. They might even be right.

(If you want to dig into them, you’re in the right place. Subscribe to The Last Theory now for my easy-to-follow exploration of Wolfram Physics.)

So I’m going to end with a plea.

Yes, Stephen Wolfram is a flawed individual. Just as I am. Just as, I dare say, you are.

But please, stop the ad hominem attacks.

If you don’t like Stephen Wolfram’s ideas, then attack his ideas.

I stand ready to defend them, too.

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