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Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Reading List: Idea Makers
 Wolfram, Stephen. Idea Makers. Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media, 2016. ISBN 9781579550035.

I first met
Stephen Wolfram
in 1988. Within minutes, I knew I was in
the presence of an extraordinary mind, combined with intellectual
ambition the likes of which I had never before encountered. He
explained that he was working on a system to automate much of the
tedious work of mathematics—both pure and applied—with the
goal of changing how science and mathematics were done forever. I not
only thought that was ambitious; I thought it was crazy. But
then Stephen went and launched
Mathematica
and, twentyeight years and eleven major releases later, his goal has
largely been achieved. At the centre of a vast ecosystem of addons
developed by his company, Wolfram Research, and third parties, it has
become one of the tools of choice for scientists, mathematicians, and
engineers in numerous fields.
Unlike many people who founded software companies, Wolfram never took his company public nor sold an interest in it to a larger company. This has allowed him to maintain complete control over the architecture, strategy, and goals of the company and its products. After the success of Mathematica, many other people, and I, learned to listen when Stephen, in his softspoken way, proclaims what seems initially to be an outrageously ambitious goal. In the 1990s, he set to work to invent A New Kind of Science: the book was published in 2002, and shows how simple computational systems can produce the kind of complexity observed in nature, and how experimental exploration of computational spaces provides a new path to discovery unlike that of traditional mathematics and science. Then he said he was going to integrate all of the knowledge of science and technology into a “big data” language which would enable knowledgebased computing and the discovery of new facts and relationships by simple queries short enough to tweet. Wolfram Alpha was launched in 2009, and Wolfram Language in 2013. So when Stephen speaks of goals such as curating all of pure mathematics or discovering a simple computational model for fundamental physics, I take him seriously.
Here we have a less ambitious but very interesting Wolfram project. Collected from essays posted on his blog and elsewhere, he examines the work of innovators in science, mathematics, and industry. The subjects of these profiles include many people the author met in his career, as well as historical figures he tries to get to know through their work. As always, he brings his own unique perspective to the project and often has insights you'll not see elsewhere. The people profiled are:
 Richard Feynman
 Kurt Gödel
 Alan Turing
 John von Neumann
 George Boole
 Ada Lovelace
 Gottfried Leibniz
 Benoit Mandelbrot
 Steve Jobs
 Marvin Minsky
 Russell Towle
 Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead
 Richard Crandall
 Srinivasa Ramanujan
 Solomon Golomb
Many of these names are well known, while others may elicit a “who?” Solomon Golomb, among other achievements, was a pioneer in the development of linearfeedback shift registers, essential to technologies such as GPS, mobile phones, and error detection in digital communications. Wolfram argues that Golomb's innovation may be the mostused mathematical algorithm in history. It's a delight to meet the pioneer.
This short (250 page) book provides personal perspectives on people whose ideas have contributed to the intellectual landscape we share. You may find the author's perspectives unusual, but they're always interesting, enlightening, and well worth reading.
Posted at September 27, 2016 19:39