Now you can help see into the mind of God

Is this what it looks like? Diagrams from Stephen Wolfram’s working model of the Universe.

Is this the path to a fundamental theory of physics? The computer scientist Stephen Wolfram has unveiled an ambitious new project: crowd-sourcing an all-encompassing theory of everything.

Stephen Wolfram likes to name things after himself.

He is the man behind Wolfram Alpha, Mathematica, Wolfram Tones, Wolfram Language, and Wolfram Research.

He has spent over 30 years creating mathematical models and computational programs that help us use science to answer questions about the world around us.

The former MacArthur Genius, who received his PhD at the age of 20, has now unveiled his latest project: an online, open-source quest to find the foundational secret of the Universe.

Called Wolfram Physics, the massive online portal encourages everyone and anyone to help prove how a simple single rule might be responsible for everything that exists.

In a blog post explaining his thinking, Wolfram said that in order to reach his goal: “We’d in effect have to go underneath space and time and basically everything we know.”

His hypothesis is that since incredibly simple rules can create complex outcomes, and that various theories like general relativity and quantum mechanics explain large chunks of reality, the underlying rule of the Universe could be similarly simple.

Wolfram Physics provides academics and digital passers-by alike with the ability to help prove any of a number of possible rules by applying them to the real world and seeing what sticks.

If one of the rules – which looks like a set of graphic instructions – works for all descriptions of reality, then we might have made the greatest discovery in the history of physics. We will have computed a working model of the Universe.

Stephen Hawking famously said that any such a theory would represent “the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God”.

But Wolfram’s ambitions are not regarded as all that sacred by other members of the scientific community.

“I’m not sure that what he does can be called science,” said his former colleague, the late esteemed physicist Freeman Dyson.

Physicist and author Sabine Hossenfelder justified her lack of excitement about the project by pointing to its overly anthropocentric assumptions: “It’s an interesting phenomenon that people today think the Universe works like a computer, like they once thought it works like a clockwork.”

So, is this the path to a fundamental theory of physics?

Rule-maker

Yes. There is a rich history of scientists and researchers edging closer and closer to a comprehensive theory. Indeed, improving on and refining the work of those who came before is a central part of scientific discovery. What Wolfram is doing that is new is using the modern capacity of computing power to bridge the gap between existing theories and test new ones.

No. It can also be argued that Wolfram’s process is thoroughly unscientific. Instead of seeing patterns in existing data, and deducing a formula that gets us as close as possible to reality, he is forcing the reality of the material world into rigid, pre-existing conceptual formulas. The very pursuit of a final formula – some sort of overarching answer – is anathema to the scientific method.

You Decide

  1. Do you think it is reasonable trying to find a single theory to explain everything or is it doomed to fail?
  2. What is your favourite theory of life? It can be a quote or an idea – it doesn’t have to look like a physics formula. What do you like about it?

Activities

  1. Talk to someone you know who cares about science (it could be your teacher). Ask them to explain a scientific theory. Then explain that same theory to another person who is not very into science.
  2. Have a look at some of the beautiful shapes developed by Wolfram. Come up with a set of simple rules (like up, down, spin around) and then apply them to a line on a piece of graph paper. Repeat until you have also drawn a “possible Universe”.

Some People Say...

“The game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test […] retires from the game.”

Karl Popper (1902-1994), Austrian philosopher of science

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There is a long tradition of trying to prove that everything has a reason behind it. From religious figures who believe in divine creation, to Bertrand Russell’s 20th-Century attempts to turn philosophical language into numbers. Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, and others have all attempted to explain and list the rules behind everything, from why apples fall from trees to why black holes absorb light.
What do we not know?
We also do not fully know what Wolfram is saying. For example, he claims that in his model, “energy corresponds to the flux of causal edges through spacelike hypersurfaces”. Your guess is as good as ours. By releasing so much information publicly before it has been reviewed by his peers, Wolfram has side-stepped the traditional scientific process. We do not know quite how seriously to take any of the work done on this project.

Word Watch

Wolfram Alpha
An online database which also works as a calculator, Wolfram Alpha is like a Google search engine for science which can calculate or work out an incredible amount of questions and problems.
MacArthur Genius
An annual prize known as the MacArthur Fellowship or the “Genius Grant”, which is awarded to between 20-30 US citizens or residents who are experts in their field.
General relativity
A theory that was developed by Albert Einstein between 1907 and 1915, which explains gravity and the effect of objects on one another. According to general relativity, the observed gravitational effect between masses results from their warping of spacetime.
Quantum mechanics
A fundamental theory in physics describing the properties of nature on an atomic scale. Unlike general relativity, which works when applied to large objects, quantum mechanics helps describe the world on a tiny level – at a scale where things can be in several places at once, and measurement can affect reality.
Stephen Hawking
English theoretical physicist famous for writing A Brief History of Time. His work on unifying quantum mechanics and general relativity won him many plaudits. A film about his life, The Theory of Everything, was released in 2014.
Esteemed
Greatly respected; admired.
Freeman Dyson
British-American physicist and mathematician, famous for his work on quantum electrodynamics and nuclear engineering. His concepts and hypotheses, often to do with space, are also worth looking up. For example, the Dyson sphere, which could capture the heat of a star, or his notion of “eternal intelligence”.
Anthropocentric
An idea that is centred around human beings. In the case of theoretical physics, this over-emphasises our relatively small space in the entirety of the Universe. Why would our computers be the tools from which we deduce the nature of reality?
Anathema
Something or someone that one vehemently dislikes. It comes from the old term for an excommunication by the pope. In this setting, it means the theory is not compatible with the scientific method: the process for observing, hypothesising, and then rigorously testing data in order to develop a scientific theory.

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