Wolfram's father, Hugo Wolfram, was a novelist and his mother, Sybil Wolfram, was a professor of philosophy at Oxford. Wolfram was educated at the exclusive Eton public school. Often described as a child prodigy (though he says he had difficulty with arithmetic as a child), he published an article on particle physics at age 15 and entered Oxford University (St John's College) at age 17. He received his Ph.D. in particle physics from Caltech at age 20 and joined the faculty there. While at Caltech, Richard Feynman considered him to be phenomenally brilliant and would "use him to bounce ideas off of". At age 21, Wolfram won the MacArthur award.
He developed a computer algebra system at Caltech, but the school's patent rules denied him ownership of the invention. He left for the School of Natural Sciences of the Institute For Advanced Study, where he studied cellular automata, mainly with computer simulations.
Wolfram left for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and started to develop the computer algebra system Mathematica in 1986, to be released in 1988. He founded a company, Wolfram Research, which continues to extend the program and market it with considerable success.
From 1992 to 2002, Wolfram worked on his controversial book A New Kind of Science, which introduced and justified the systematic, empirical study of very simple computational systems. Additionally, it argued that for fundamental reasons these types of systems, rather than traditional mathematics, are needed to model and understand complexity in nature.
The NKS book received significant publicity in the press. The initial reviews were mixed. While the book was widely praised for clearly presenting a large range of ideas, it also led vocal critics to denounce its ambitious self-image. Some criticism came from physicists and mathematicians, who represent the established way of doing science that Wolfram seeks to revolutionize. Other critics include advocates of complexity theory who felt that what was true was not new, and what was new was not true (see e.g. Melanie Mitchell's review of the book in Science, 298, 65--68.) (Wolfram himself is a harsh critic of traditional complexity theory, feeling that it is too reliant on mathematical formalisms, focuses too much on natural systems, and tends towards computer experiments that are too complicated.) Critics allege that Wolfram's work displays many of the hallmark signs of crank science, including 1. Grandiose claims for the validity and scope of the theory, 2. Stated belief that a conspiracy by the scientific establishment is hindering uptake of the theory 3.Comparison of the originator with Einstein, Newton, Galileo, or Copernicus, and 4. Direct communication of the idea to the media, before going through the usual peer review process of publishing in scholarly journals.
Since the release of the NKS book in 2002, Wolfram has split his time between developing Mathematica and promoting the book by giving talks, holding NKS conferences, and starting an NKS summer school.
- Stephen Wolfram online
- A collection of reviews of Stephen Wolfram's book, A New Kind of Science
- The freely available full text of A New Kind of Science
- Accusations of plagiarism in NKS
- Video of Stephen Wolfram speaking at the International Conference on Complex Systems, hosted by the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI)