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The Man Who Cracked The Code to Everything ...

... But first it cracked him. The inside story of how Stephen Wolfram went from boy genius to recluse to science renegade.

By Steven Levy

Rule 30 

Word had been out that Stephen Wolfram, the onetime enfant terrible of the science world, was working on a book that would Say It All, a paradigm-busting tome that would not only be the definitive account on complexity theory but also the opening gambit in a new way to view the universe. But no one had read it.

Though physically unimposing with a soft, round face and a droll English accent polished at Eton and Oxford, Wolfram had already established himself as a larger-than-life figure in the gossipy world of science. A series of much-discussed reinventions made him sort of the Bob Dylan of physics. He'd been a child genius, and at 21 had been the youngest member of the storied first class of MacArthur genius awards. After laying the groundwork for a brilliant career in particle physics, he'd suddenly switched to the untraditional pursuit of studying complex systems, and, to the establishment's dismay, dared to pioneer the use of computers as a primary research tool. Then he seemed to turn his back on that field. He started a software company to sell Mathematica, a computer language he'd written that did for higher math what the spreadsheet did for business. It made him a rich man. Now he had supposedly returned to science to write a book that would make the biggest splash of all. And, as someone who'd followed his progress since the mid-1980s, I was going to see some of it.

We agreed to meet for dinner in Berkeley. As I drove to the restaurant, rain started coming down in sheets; on the pavement, water ran toward the gutter in twisted, chaotic rivulets - seemingly unfathomable patterns that I would never view in the same way after Stephen Wolfram was done with me. We chatted through dinner, remembering some of our history. And then he handed over a stack of papers. The type was set and the diagrams were sharp - apparently he was almost at the page-proof stage, with publication pending. I'd known about his work in a former backwater of physics called cellular automata, and as I read the first few paragraphs, it was clear he was using that research as a background to make more profound statements. Very profound statements. As best I could make out in my quick flip through the pages, he seemed to be saying that the key to the universe was computation: The entire cosmos, from quantum particles to the formation of galaxies, was a perpetual runtime flowing from simple rules. Yet despite all our learning, human beings have missed the point of it all, because of the elusive nature of complexity. That is, until Stephen Wolfram came along and uncovered what a few millennia's worth of scientists had somehow failed to comprehend. Whoa.

I wondered if the pages I was holding would actually be a part of history. Or would they be regarded as folly, an act of hubris by a brain-punk who'd been thumbing his nose at the scientific establishment even before he began to shave? I handed it back to him, with the assurance that upon its completion within a few months, I'd get a chance to go through it at my own pace. And so would the world.

That was 10 years ago.

What happened to Stephen Wolfram in the interim has become sort of an urban legend in the scientific community. Not long after our dinner, which occurred in the spring of 1992, he became, in his own words, a "recluse." He moved, with the woman he had recently married (a mathematician), to the Chicago area and started a family. He rarely made the two-hour drive to Wolfram Research, his thriving software company. Instead, he put himself in a kind of voluntary house arrest, single-mindedly devoted to the completion of the book. "He dropped totally out of the scene in every sense of the word," says his friend Terrence Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute. "He hasn't published a word, he doesn't go to meetings. He's in a self-made isolation center." To maximize his concentration, Wolfram became nocturnal: He worked at night, when the world was asleep, and retired at 8 in the morning.

As the Web emerged and exploded, as dotcoms boomed and busted, as the White House went from Bush to Clinton to Bush, he worked. At some point he had decided that no conventional publisher would provide the attention and exacting standards that his book demanded. (He had no lack of offers.) So he decided to do it himself, using the resources of his software company. It would result in one of the most expensive vanity projects in history. Or as one friend, Gregory Chaitin, an information theorist at IBM, puts it, "He reminds me of the noblemen who worked in science during the 1800s - they did it for the love of it."

Wolfram's days would begin in mid-afternoon. He'd usually do an hour or two of official business, operating a multimillion-dollar company by email and conference call. Early evening hours offered an opportunity for some family time. Then, as the world retired and distractions fell away, he'd enter the professionally soundproofed, wood-lined office on the top floor of his house and immerse himself in the act of remaking science.

Contributing writer Steven Levy (steven@echonyc.com) is a senior editor at Newsweek and the author of Crypto.

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