The novel coronavirus has derailed everyday existence for all of us, forcing us to make difficult choices. But a few weeks ago, Stephen Wolfram’s dilemma was unique. What should you do, he wondered, if, right in the middle of a pandemic, you were ready to announce that you had made historical progress—at least as you saw it—toward solving a fundamental physics question? If you felt you had figured out the path to the Holy Grail of Physics: a unified theory, making it possible for the first time to discover the underlying rule of our entire universe, one that intertwines relativity, gravity, and quantum mechanics with an elegant coherence? And what if you were ready to release the tools and background materials that would enable a crowdsourced effort to take physicists over the finish line?
“My original thought was that we should wait,” Wolfram says via Zoom from his home in Massachusetts, “that it’s kind of disrespectful to release an irrelevant, intellectual thing when people are having all this trouble with this pandemic.”
But then Wolfram, who splits his time between science (he began as a particle physicist and in 2002 wrote a controversial 1,280-page manifesto about the computational nature of the universe) and commerce (he’s the CEO of the 800-person company Wolfram Research), started getting emails from friends, acquaintances, and total strangers stuck at home, who suddenly had time to pursue intellectual projects. He realized that a world sheltered at home might provide the perfect army to search for a single rule that governs our universe. “We could wait for six months or something for the pandemic to clear out. But a lot of people are sitting at home wanting to think about intellectual things, and we’ve got an intellectual thing that I think is interesting,” he asks. “Why don’t we just release it?”
So today marks the debut of the Wolfram Physics Project. (Wolfram is an artist of the eponymous, having named previous products Wolfram Alpha, Wolfram Language, Wolfram Data Framework, and so on.) The physics project lays out the theories of its 60-year-old creator, provides documentation for his claims that he has already made progress in understanding space, time, and the nature of elementary particles, and invites everyone to join in the search to decode fundamental physics. Basically, the project involves creating graph-like models of many possible universes, as defined by rules that determine how the model evolves. As the graphs become more complex—really more complex—they generate phenomena that’s worthy of study in themselves. If the rules are right, one can “discover” in them the real physics that govern our universe—everything from E=mc2 to the law of gravity.
To help his explorers, Wolfram has written over 800 pages of documents, and his collaborators have produced three papers of their own. Wolfram, a digital pack rat, has also recorded many of the brainstorming meetings between himself and his collaborators and is releasing 430 hours or so of videos. (Even sheltering in place won’t give you enough time for that!)
It’s an understatement to say this project is unusual, and many traditional physicists will regard it as folly. But the project is totally in character for Wolfram, whose career includes a MacArthur Foundation fellowship—also known as a “Genius Grant”—at age 21; a stint at the Institute of Advanced Study (Einstein’s former home); the founding of his company; the invention of the Wolfram Alpha knowledge engine; creating a calculation tool (Mathematica); and writing Wolfram Language, a full-scale computational computer language.
He is also known for his immodesty. “Physics hasn’t had something dramatic happen in a long time,” he says, though he does concede that the detection of gravitational waves was kind of a moment. “Sciences go through cycles that can last often more than a human life span when it’s kind of just incremental, and then suddenly something exciting happens. I’m pretty hopeful that, at a purely technical level, what we’ve done will reenergize theoretical physics, which is in something of a rut right now.”
Now he’s asking the world to become part of the effort. “I think we finally have a path to a fundamental theory of physics,” he writes in one of the documents on the site. “But we’re not there yet … So let’s all go and find the fundamental theory of physics together! It’s going to be great!”
Wolfram’s project is a continuation of a thread that he began over 20 years ago but had dropped for a while. In 2002, he wrote what he regarded as his masterwork: that 1,280-page tome called A New Kind of Science, which he shorthands as NKS, in which he argued that huge advances could be made by viewing the universe from a computational perspective. In the 100-page chapter 9, he wrote about fundamental physics: “The history of physics has seen the development of a sequence of progressively more accurate models for the universe—from classical mechanics, through quantum field theory and beyond. And one may wonder whether this process will go on forever, or whether at some point will come to an end, and one will reach a final ultimate model for the universe.”
His own belief is that not only will that model be found, but it will follow “a single, simple underlying rule.” Finding that rule would be, he wrote, “a major triumph for science, and a clear demonstration that at least in some direction human thought has reached the edge of what’s possible.”
When I wrote about Wolfram and NKS in a WIRED profile in 2002, I felt that he would thereafter be engaged in finding that rule. The piece ended with a conversation we had in a Champaign, Illinois, steakhouse, where Wolfram spoke of a time when we will be able to write that simple rule—maybe a few lines of code in a Mathematica program—and say: “That is the universe.”
“Do you believe we’ll find this code in your lifetime?” I asked.
“I hope so, yeah.”
“Do you want to find it?”
“Sure, that’d be nice,” he said.
I asked if that was his next thing to do.
Wolfram smiled. “I’d like to think about that, yeah.”
But that’s not what happened. As he writes in a paper accompanying the physics project, over the years, when he would bring up the idea to physicists, “they would just give me quizzical looks, and I could tell they were uncomfortably wondering if I had lost my marbles.” Even his physicist friends would change the subject. “My project of trying to find the fundamental theory of physics languished,” he wrote.
He became more involved in the various products he had created and in running Wolfram Research. He did keep working on the ideas he raised in NKS, though, and every year he held a “Summer School” where young scientists inspired by his ideas would listen to his lectures and share their own ideas. A few years ago, two physics students, Max Piskunov and Jonathan Gorard, separately expressed their interest in pursuing the ideas in chapter 9. Their bubbling enthusiasm seemed to energize Wolfram, and in mid-2019 he decided to work with them, immersing himself again in the world of science.
So how does the process work? It’s easier to grasp visually than written out (“Human language is not built to explain this stuff,” Wolfram says in apology), but here goes: It’s all about building model universes in the form of graphs. The raw material of these model universes is points of space. (In Wolfram’s view, space is not continuous but formed by discrete points.) Each model starts with a simple representation with a few of these points, then a rule is applied that generates more points. The rule could be anything, as long as it consistently determines how the graph will evolve in the next iteration.
One of the big lessons of Wolfram’s previous work was how the execution of simple rules could produce spectacularly complex behavior, and that applies in this case as well. The question is, as Wolfram puts it: “If we were to run rules like these long enough, would they end up making something that reproduces our physical universe? Or, put another way: Out in this computational universe of simple rules, can we find our physical universe?”
Holy matrix! In other words, he’s suggesting that what happens in these models, which exist only as computations, is as valid as phenomena in what we call the real world—even though these model universes are spectacularly less complex than the actual universe. (Even building his simulations with a 100-core network he has access to as the CEO of a company can’t begin to approach the computation invested in the real universe, which Wolfram guesses might have run its basic rule something like 10400 iterations to get, well, everything.)
Nonetheless, Wolfram says he has been able to discover the same equations operating in these models as the ones we use to prove theories like quantum mechanics or gravity in the real world.
“We started to prove various general properties of these models,” says his 22-year-old collaborator Gorard, who is a PhD candidate at Cambridge. “By making just simple constraints on the rules, we were able to get out phenomena that we could show was analogous to—or in some cases equivalent to—things we know about in real physics.” By this, he means things like the cornerstones of physics: general relativity and quantum field theory.
But so far none of the universes have viable candidates for the one Wolfram wants most to produce: the single rule that’s the one that our universe runs.
Do I even need to bother mentioning that Wolfram’s approach isn’t exactly the way physics is practiced these days? Though his early adoption of the computational paradigm of physics has proved prescient, there have always been sharp critics of his unconventional approach, most notably the celebrated Freeman Dyson, who died in February. “I’m not sure that what he does can be called science,” Dyson told me when he was a colleague of Wolfram’s at the Institute of Advanced Study. When NKS came out, Dyson said it was “worthless.” (Wolfram now tells me that a few months ago, he asked Dyson if the quotes about him were accurate. Dyson verified that they were. “I still have the email exchange where he said, ‘Well, yes, I said that—and I still think all the stuff you’ve done is nonsense!” Wolfram tells me.)
Wolfram understands that his project is likely to draw more interest from computer scientists than traditional physicists at first. “What I’ve told Stephen is that the people who work on computing will probably find this incredibly compelling,” says Nathan Myhrvold, the CEO of Intellectual Ventures who, in a former life, was a particle physicist working with Stephen Hawking. “And more traditional fundamental physicists will probably say, ‘OK, great. You’ve used an unusual formalism to prove something we already knew.’” (Myhrvold does think that Wolfram’s work on the physics project is “intriguing.”)
And when I asked Jonathan Gorard what his physics professors thought of his work with Wolfram, he admitted that many were “apathetic.” On the other hand, he said, “Gratifyingly, no one has completely shut it down and said, ‘This is totally crazy. You’re nuts.’ Or whatever.”
But not all of the establishment writes off Wolfram. Andrew Strominger, the Gwill E. York professor of physics at Harvard University and a leading string theorist, wrote in an email that there is a need for new concepts and tools to solve long-standing problems in physics. “Stephen is addressing these issues with a radically new approach,” he wrote. “It has been stimulating to discuss these issues with him, and I am excited to see where it will lead.”
After an admittedly brief look at Wolfram’s materials, the prominent physicist Sean Carroll also showed interest, while expressing reservations. “On the one hand, I’m in favor of taking swings at fundamental physics with wildly nonstandard ideas and seeing what happens,” says Carroll, a research professor of physics at Caltech. “Most such efforts will inevitably fail, but the payoff is huge if you hit the target. On the other hand, the standard procedure in the development of such ideas would be to verify that you can recover some simple cases of known physics—the simple harmonic oscillator, the inverse-square law for gravity, the double-slit experiment—before raising hopes for a fundamental theory of everything.” (“Of course we’ve done that,” says Wolfram.)
For his part, after almost four decades of creating projects other people found to be idiosyncratic, Wolfram is used to hearing reservations. “I don’t go into these things saying, ‘I’m going to build something bizarrely different that nobody’s going to understand,’” he says. “It just ends up that way.”
The real test, as in any scientific enterprise, will be whether the theories unearthed by studying the model universes can be replicated in the real world. At this point, such experiments are aspirational. But whether the physics establishment approves or not, the Wolfram Physics Project is opening for business today. We will soon find out whether scientists will accept his challenge and begin building candidate universes within it, hoping to find the rule that rules us all.
What the hell else do they have to do, all cooped up in the house?
Updated 4/14/2020 12:30 EST: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Champaign, Illinois, and Andrew Strominger’s name.
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