WHAT'S SO NEW IN A NEWFANGLED SCIENCE?

[ Sat. Jun. 15. 2002 ]

SCIENCE is a cumulative, fairly collegial venture. But every so often a maverick, working in self-imposed solitude, bursts forth with a book that aims to set straight the world with a new idea. Some of these grand schemes spring from biology, some from physics, some from mathematics. But what they share is the same unnerving message: everything you know is wrong.

A self-employed British theorist named Julian Barbour recently argued that time doesn't exist, and Frank Tipler, a physicist with a theological bent, offered scientific proof, in ''The Physics of Immortality,'' of an eternal hereafter. People still read Julian Jaynes's imposing 1976 book, ''The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,'' which pinpoints when humanity first became self-aware, and (also from that era) the work of James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis, holding that the earth -- rocks, air and all -- is a living, breathing superorganism.

But for sheer audacity -- and intellectual salesmanship -- it would be hard to beat Stephen Wolfram, whose 1,263-page, self-published manifesto, ''A New Kind of Science,'' was holding its own last week atop Amazon's best-seller chart, along with ''Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood'' and ''The Nanny Diaries.''

In the long tradition of the scientific loner, Dr. Wolfram, a freelance physicist known among his colleagues for his abrasive and self-aggrandizing ways, has yanked the spotlight onto a strikingly counterintuitive idea -- that the universe is really just a big computer, something that can best be described not by analyzing equations but by trying to figure out what kind of software it runs.

That, however, is just half the story. By short-circuiting the traditional formalities of scientific publication, he has managed to offend not just scientists who think he is wrong but also some who think he is right. What hasn't always come across in the debate, which is shaping up as the intellectual skirmish of the season, is that Dr. Wolfram is not a lone voice in the woods.

Interesting ideas rarely spring up in isolation. The vision Dr. Wolfram has so meticulously laid out in such an arresting manner is part of a movement some call digital physics or digital philosophy -- a worldview that has been slowly developing for 20 years.

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