The Last Theory
The Last Theory
The Last Theory
20 January 2022

Why I’m writing about Wolfram Physics

I always envy those people who, through a fantastic stroke of luck, find themselves to be exactly the right person in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I always ask myself, why can’t that happen to me?

Well, it just did.

Let me explain.

No more big ideas

I lost interest in physics in 1988.

As a child, my mind had been blown by the simplicity and strangeness of physicists’ theories: the curvature of space-time; the collapse of the wavefunction.

When I went on to study physics at university, my mind was deadened by the stultifying calculus and statistics I was expected to learn instead of those magnificent theories.

It was as if physicists, despairing of making progress on the big ideas, had resorted to the mathematical minutiae.

Mathematics and me

Truth is, I was never very good at mathematics.

It was like chess for me. The 64 squares, the 32 pieces and the different ways of moving them piqued my interest. I learned the rules. I played some games. I caught sight of the complexities. I lost interest.

To master the game, I realized, would take years of focus on chess and chess alone. I was more inclined to write software to solve the problem. A computer program would surely play chess better than I ever could.

Same with mathematics. When it came to calculus, I found the principles fascinating, but learning the countless techniques for integrating different functions was tedious. So I wrote software to solve the problem.

My numerical computer program might not have yielded such beautiful formulae as the mathematicians’ techniques, and it wouldn’t get me through my exams (academia considered any use of computers to be cheating), but it could integrate any function.

Same with physics. The complex mathematics needed to model even something as simple as a single electron and a single proton was too much for me. I was more inclined to write software to solve the problem. A computer program would surely model atoms better than I ever could.

I read the writing on the wall: I gave up on physics and mathematics, and went into software.

And, incidentally, since I love explaining strange ideas in simple terms, I wrote books on the side.

The end of the line

I didn’t think I would see any progress in physics in my lifetime.

Sure, physicists worked out a few details over the decades, often by firing particles at each other at ever higher energies.

Their theories, though, involved ever more impenetrable mathematics.

This was the opposite of the beautifully simple, beautifully strange physics that had fascinated me as a child.

The new theories were complicated.

The new theories were arcane.

The new theories were ugly.

Maybe, I thought, physics had reached a limit. Maybe we’d looked as deeply as we could into the microscopic and as widely as we could into the macroscopic, and would be permitted to see no further.

Simplify, simplify

Still, I could never quite let go of physics.

Just as I saw software as the solution to chess and calculus, I wondered whether computation might solve the problems of physics, too (why did academia consider any use of computers to be cheating?)

Inspired by the idea that interactions between particles are themselves particles (electromagnetic interactions, for example, are mediated by photons), I imagined a theory in which interactions were fundamental.

I imagined these interactions as a network of nodes and edges.

Since I’d never actually seen any evidence for space or time, I imagined space and time as arising from this network.

In my imagination, the network was not a model of the universe, the network was the universe.

I sketched out the simplest possible networks on scraps of paper, but that’s as far as I went. Having given up on physics and mathematics, I didn’t know enough to take the idea any further.

Oh well. It has been fun to play with these ideas.

Along came Wolfram

Then I heard about the Wolfram Physics Project.

I only had to hear Stephen Wolfram talk about it online for an hour or two to know that he’d nailed it.

When I say “know”, I mean know: there was little doubt in my mind that Wolfram’s simple, computational rules were the solution to the the problems of physics.

This was the progress in physics I thought I’d never see.

This might very well be the last theory of physics, the elusive fundamental theory that explained everything.

I began to believe that I’d been born at precisely the right time to witness the biggest breakthrough in physics ever.

The moment

When I realized what I was witnessing, I felt a deep sadness that I’d never been good enough at physics or mathematics to play an active role in this historical moment.

Then I realized that I was wrong.

After my years of study, I’m good enough at physics and mathematics, I think, to make sense of what Wolfram and his team are doing.

After all my years in software, I’ll be able, I think, to run computational simulations using the software freely distributed by Wolfram.

And after my years writing books explaining strange ideas in simple terms, I’m in a unique position, I think, to pass on what I learn about Wolfram’s strangest of strange ideas.

Through a fantastic stroke of luck, I find myself to be exactly the right person in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I’m going to write about the Wolfram Physics Project.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

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