Saturday, February 07, 2009

A New Kind Of Science

I'm currently struggling my way through Stephen Wolfram's book A New Kind Of Science. So far, I've made it to about page 200 or so (of 850, not including almost 350 pages of end-notes). I'm not going to review it until (unless?) I've gotten to the end, but so far, I'm not very impressed. This book is really frustrating to read.

For starters, the title of the book ends up getting repeated over and over in the text. It's fairly common when writing about new phenomena or new ideas to assign names to them, for purposes of shorthand if nothing else. But no - phrases like "a new kind of science", or "the new kind of science I've discovered", or "the new kind of science described in this book" appear over and over in the first few chapters. This is really hard to read, and gives the impression of really trying to "sell" the idea that there's some kind of radical new idea here, which, 1/4 of the way in, there is so far no sign of.

It's also really hard to read a book where the author seems to be taking personal credit for well-known results in computer science, without so much as a reference to the work other people have done in the area. There are some references in the end-notes, but the main text doesn't seem to make any kind of distinction between what's new, and what's well-known or borrowed. For someone who isn't familiar with the field, it'd be easy to get the impression that Wolfram invented everything here.

I expected that this book would be fascinating. I've been interested in Cellular Automata since the 80's, and some of the things people have been able to do with the Game Of Life, or the Wireworld CA are pretty amazing. So far, though, there's been a lot of build up for the "big discovery", and some fairly rough-shod introduction to CA theory, but I feel like I'm not making much progress towards any kind of goal.

Yesterday, in an attempt to see whether it's just me that's having a problem with this book, I did a search for reviews of the book. The results were not encouraging.

I'd really like to hear from anybody who has made it all the way through this book. In particular, I'd like to know if I should just skip ahead to the grand conclusion, or slog through the rest of the text.

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