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Our pal, and MAKE contributor, RU Sirius, editor of h+ (Humanity Plus) magazine, sent us word of this interview, by mathenaut and sci-fi icon Rudy Rucker, with Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica fame, talking about his upcoming Wolfram Alpha search engine. Here’s the intro to Rudy’s interview:

Stephen Wolfram has warped my life three times, and now here comes a fourth.

When I first interviewed him in 1984, he converted me to his belief that everything in the world resembles a certain kind of parallel computation called a cellular automaton, (or a CA for short). I became obsessed with studying CAs–which produce hypnotic computer graphical outputs akin to light shows. And this led to me riding the wave of computer science for twenty years as a professor at San Jose State University.

In 1988 Stephen developed the powerful Mathematica software that lets a computer manipulate mathematical expressions in an intelligent way. My first consulting job outside of academia involved writing Mathematica demos for the design tools company, Autodesk, where I also worked on a number of other science software projects–until the tanking market of the early 1990s sent me back to teaching CS again.

In 2002 Stephen published his magnum opus, A New Kind of Science, (called NKS for short.) The NKS system is based on the observation that each process which we find in nature can be regarded as a computation that has a very simple underlying rule. Given the world’s apparent complexity, it seems counterintuitive that the world could be based on simple rules. But computer scientists like Wolfram have amply demonstrated that simple rules can in fact generate complex behavior. An example: a simple rule describes how billiard balls bounce off each other, but if you set a bunch of balls in motion, the resulting patterns are quite intricate.

I became so fascinated by this set of ideas that I retired from my teaching job to have time to write my own tome on the subject: The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. The side effect was that I was finally off the teaching treadmill, and free to spend more time with my first love, writing science fiction.

And now, in 2009, a new kind of browser search engine called Wolfram|Alpha is about to appear. The other day I talked to Stephen on the phone for about two hours, and he demonstrated some of Wolfram|Alpha’s powers via a web-conferencing hook-up. In the following, I’ll be paraphrasing his words, based on my notes, my memory, and an audio recording of our conversation. If you want to delve further, we’ve placed a slightly condensed podcast of the conversation online at http://hplusmagazine.com/media/sw_alphapodcast.mp3.

Wolfram|Alpha: Searching for Truth

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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