A New Kind of Science: Fifth Anniversary

Date: May 14, 2007

From: Stephen Wolfram

Subject: 5th Anniversary of A New Kind of Science

Today it is five years since A New Kind of Science was published.

Five years is a short time in intellectual history. But already it is clear that the ideas of the book have firmly taken root, and their effects are steadily growing.

There are all the usual signs of activity, in both traditional academic media and elsewhere. Indeed, by now the sheer quantity of material being generated has become quite overwhelming. It spans all the traditional sciences, and reaches into technology, the creative arts, business, philosophy and more. (See pointers at http://www.wolframscience.com.)

I am continually amazed at how widespread serious study of the book has been. Particularly striking to me has been how often I have encountered leaders in some field or another, who can tell me from memory specific page numbers of the NKS book on which there is something relevant to their field.

I spent nearly eleven years writing the book. And during that time I discovered thousands of results that I packed into the book and its notes. And it is nice now to see that in addition to people absorbing its overall points, there is beginning to be an increasing amount of "mining" of details from the book.

It has been very tempting to devote myself to extensions and applications of ideas in the book. But instead over the past few years I have for the most part chosen to "go upstream"--and focus on building the most general tools possible.

Twenty years ago one of my original motivations for creating Mathematica was to have a tool that would make it possible for me to do A New Kind of Science.

And about ten years ago, as I was working on A New Kind of Science, I gradually began to realize that the foundations we had built with Mathematica would allow us to take some new bold steps.

Partly this was the result of absorbing the real implications of the abstract concept of symbolic programming that lies at the heart of Mathematica. And partly it was the result of understanding--through NKS--more about the true potential of the whole computational paradigm.

For ten years we worked to bring this vision to fruition. And it is very exciting to be able to say that just two weeks ago, after a huge project, with countless new ideas and a monumental effort of software engineering, we finished. And the result is a radically new version of Mathematica.

I think what we have done takes computing to a whole new level--and will in the end prove more significant even than the original release of Mathematica 1.0 nearly twenty years ago, with all its subsequent success.

Certainly it will tremendously expand the range of potential users and uses of Mathematica in general. But for NKS it will also make possible qualitatively new kinds of discoveries.

When I started--26 years ago--the investigations which led to NKS, the key programs that I used took me days or weeks to write. But now, with our new Mathematica, I can write better versions of those same programs in minutes--and work with them in a completely new dynamic way.

One of the things made possible by our new Mathematica is a new interactive communication medium, showcased by The Wolfram Demonstrations Project, which we launched along with Mathematica two weeks ago.

The Demonstrations Project is a free resource with a broad and growing range of interactive Demonstrations. And among those already available are nearly 200 based directly on the NKS book.

The new Mathematica immediately provides both a new level of tools for NKS, and new methods of communication.

But the progress of NKS requires developing not only technology, but also a strong NKS community. And as part of our support for the growing NKS community, we have decided to commemorate this fifth anniversary of NKS by establishing the first NKS research prize.

We have decided for the prize to select a specific problem that relates to the core mission of pure NKS: to explore, map and understand the computational universe.

The details are at http://www.wolframprize.org

The prize of $25,000 will be awarded to the first person or group to determine whether or not a particular Turing machine from the NKS book is universal.

Before NKS, one might have thought that to do general-purpose computation would require a system elaborately built with complicated rules. But the discoveries of NKS--and the Principle of Computational Equivalence--suggest that instead such universal computation should be common, even among systems with simple rules.

The purpose of the prize is to establish just how simple these rules can be in the case of Turing machines--the classic original abstract model of computation.

Of course we do not know who will win the prize. But it has been exciting over the past few years to see so many talented people, both professional and amateur, and at all stages of life, enter the general field of NKS research.

This June we will be holding our fifth annual NKS Summer School, with probably our strongest group of students yet.

And in July we will be holding the NKS 2007 Wolfram Science Conference.

When I discovered the first elements of NKS, I knew it was the beginning of something large. But as the years have gone by--and now as I have been able to watch what others have done with NKS--I have gradually realized that NKS is even more important and fundamental than I had ever imagined.

These are still the early years for NKS, and there is much to come, both in basic science and applications. But the NKS community is growing, and the pace of progress is quickening--and especially with our new tools, I expect the next few years to be particularly exciting.

Thank you for your interest in NKS during its early years.

Stephen Wolfram