Chapter 0: General Notes

Section 0: General Notes

Developing the new kind of science

Up to this point in its history the science in this book has essentially been just my personal project. But now that the book is out, all sorts of other people can begin to participate—adding their own personal achievements to the development of the intellectual structure that I have built in this book.

The first obvious but crucial thing to do is to explain and interpret what is already in the book. For although this is a long book that I have tried to write as clearly as possible, there is immensely more that can and should be said—in many different ways—about almost all the ideas and results it contains. Sometimes a more technical presentation may be useful; sometimes a less technical one. Sometimes it will be helpful to make more connections to some existing area of thought or scholarship. And sometimes particular ideas and results in this book will just benefit from the emphasis of having a whole paper or book or website devoted to them.

One of my goals in this book has been to answer the most obvious questions about each of the subjects I address. And at this I believe I have been moderately successful. But the science I have developed in this book opens up an area so vast that the twenty years I have spent investigating it have allowed me to explore only tiny parts. And indeed from almost every page of this book there are all sorts of new questions that emerge. In fact, even about systems that I have studied as extensively as cellular automata I am always amazed at just how easy it is to identify worthwhile questions that have not yet been addressed. And in general the ideas and methods of this book seem to yield an unending stream of important questions of a remarkable range of different kinds.

On the website associated with this book I plan to maintain a list of questions that I believe are of particular interest. The questions will be of many kinds and at many levels. Some it will be possible to address just by fairly straightforward but organized computer experimentation, while others will benefit from varying levels of technical skill and knowledge from existing areas of science, mathematics or elsewhere.

Like any serious intellectual pursuit, doing well the new kind of science in this book is not easy. In writing the book I have put great effort into explaining things in straightforward ways. But the fact that in some particular case I may have succeeded does not mean that the underlying science was easy. And in fact my uniform experience has been that to make progress in the kind of science I describe in this book requires at a raw intellectual level at least as much as any traditional area of science. The kind of extensive detailed technical knowledge that characterizes most traditional areas of science is usually not needed—though it can be helpful. But if anything, greater clarity and organization of thought is needed than in areas where there is existing technical formalism to fall back on. At a practical level the most important basic skill is probably Mathematica programming. For it is crucial to be able to try out new ideas and experiments quickly—and in my experience it is also important to have the discipline of formulating things in the precise language of Mathematica.

One feature of this book is that it covers a broad area and comes to very broad conclusions. But to get to the point of being able to do this has taken me twenty years of gradually building up from specific detailed results and ideas. And I have no doubt that in the future essentially all significant contributions will also be made by building on foundations of specific detailed facts. And indeed, what I expect to be the mainstay of the science that develops from this book is the gradual accumulation of more and more knowledge of a variety of detailed concrete kinds.

I have tried in this book to lead by example in defining the way I believe things should be done. Probably the single most important principle that I have followed is just to try to keep everything as simple as possible. Study the simplest systems. Ask the most obvious questions. Search for the most straightforward explanations. For among other things, this is ultimately how the most useful and powerful results are obtained. Not that it is easy to do this. For while in the end it may be possible to get to something simple and elegant, it often takes huge intellectual effort to see just how this can be done. And without great tenacity there is a tremendous tendency to stop before one has gone far enough.

In most existing fields of science there are so many technicalities to learn and keep current on that it is rare for anyone but a professional scientist to be able to make any significant contribution. But in the new kind of science that I describe in this book I believe that at least at first there will be opportunities for a much broader range of people to make contributions. In existing fields of science their largely closed communities tend to maintain standards of quality mostly through direct institutional and personal contact. Yet particularly when there are technical aspects to a field it is also comparatively easy for practitioners to assess a piece of work just from the overall way it handles and presents its technicalities. And in fact there are obvious analogs of this in the new kind of science that I describe in this book. First, there is the issue of whether tools like computers are used in effective ways. But in many ways more central is whether there is a certain basic level of clarity and simplicity to a piece of work. Often it is difficult to achieve this. But the point is that the skills necessary to do so correspond rather directly to the ones necessary to carry out the actual science itself well.

Image Source Notebooks:

From Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [citation]