Stephen Wolfram – “There is no abstract way to associate meaning with a shape”

July, 2019
Reading Time
6 mins
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Image © Christopher Wolfram

An interview with computer scientist, physicist, and entrepreneur, Stephen Wolfram

This week’s interview is a little different. Stephen Wolfram is not best known for his creative work. You won’t find his work on Behance or ArtStation, and you’re more likely to see him behind a lectern than an easel.

Stephen Wolfram is the creator of Mathematica, a widely used technical computing system that uses the Wolfram Language to (amongst many other things) visualise data.

I emphasise data visualisation because, for Stephen, data is more than just his bread and butter. While some people may use technology to track their sleep patterns or their daily steps, Stephen applies similar principals to every aspect of his life as a CEO. For example, in this article, Stephen speculates that he has “what is probably one of the world’s largest collections of personal data”, highlighting data visualisations from his email activity spanning several decades; visualisations created using the software he invented.

The premise of the movie Arrival (2016) centres around a visual alien language. Shortly after the film’s release, we interviewed Martine Bertrand, the artist responsible for the visual style of the logograms that formed the language. What most people don’t know is that those logograms are more than just random shapes created at the behest of a Hollywood studio. Stephen Wolfram and his son Christopher were tasked with using Martine’s original logograms to develop a legitimate alien language. Christopher Wolfram covers the process in detail on this video, and the associated code and assets are available on GitHub.

In addition to the above connection, I was glad to speak to Stephen because it was a reminder of the solid mathematical foundation that creativity requires. Every designer is aware of Da Vinci’s Devine Proportion, and every photographer is mindful of the rule of thirds. Even the most devout Dadaist must understand grids and ratios if only to know how to avoid them.

I recommend Stephen Wolfram’s Blog – a series high-concept long-form explorations, written in an incredibly accessible style.

Stephen Wolfram

Many films, particularly in the science fiction genre, play a little fast and loose with scientific accuracy and plausibility. More recently, there seems to have been an increase in filmmakers who want their projects to have a sound scientific foundation. Do you think that this is important, and if so, why?

I always think it’s nice when a movie lets one engage intellectually as well as emotionally, and having a sound “science story” is a way to help achieve this. I think filmmakers often assume that the science will get in the way of the story they want to tell. But for me it’s just that one has to be creative about the science as well as about everything else in the movie. And, by the way, it’s surely good for the world to educate people a little more about science—and wrapping science in the story of a movie is potentially a great way to do that.

You got involved with Arrival at a late stage in development. At this time many of the logograms had already been created, and in fact, some basic meaning had been attached to several of them.

Given the brief, do you think that the logograms were the most appropriate output for the alien language, or, if you had been in involved at an earlier stage, would you have suggested an alternative design?

I think the logograms looked very nice. If we’d been involved earlier then, yes, we might have suggested slightly different ways to assemble them from grammatical parts. But I don’t think people watching the movie (as opposed to picking apart every frame!) would have noticed the difference.

Martine-Bertrand Logogramme Arrival
Martine Bertrand’s Original Logogram

Could the Wolfram code be used to assign meaning to the logograms effectively be used to assign meanings to any shapes?

No—because there can’t be a general way to do this. Think about the shapes we see in the natural world. What “meaning” do they have? Or think about shapes we see in archaeology. We often don’t know when they were “ornamental”, and when they were “functional”. There is no abstract way to associate meaning with a shape. One needs a whole cultural context to be able to do that. I happen to have written about these issues recently in connection with us humans sending artifacts into space.

On a totally unrelated subject, allow me to ask a question that has been on my mind for some years. Theoretically, would 3D printing ever be possible on a molecular level?

I think so. Something like this was an early objective of nanotechnology, but it was considered too difficult, and largely abandoned. Traditional synthetic chemistry tries to build molecules by applying a sequence of reactions that effectively transform the molecule. I have long thought there should be a direct way to build any molecule that’s stable. Biology does a restricted version of this using DNA and amino acids. But it’ll be extremely important when we can finally do it more generally. I’m guessing that one day we won’t just have computers; everything will be made of computers right down to the molecule scale.

And finally, if you died and got reincarnated as a song, what would that song be?

Hmmm. I’m guessing my brain has 100 trillion or so synaptic weights, that encode my memories, etc..

And I suppose you could transmit those, even as music, though at least for now they’d be pretty hard to reconstruct as “me”. My scientific work, particularly around my Principle of Computational Equivalence, has led me to believe that a wide range of things, including human brains, are computationally equivalent, even to programs with simple rules. So perhaps I could just as well be represented by the sequence from my favorite rule 30 cellular automaton, as rendered, for example, on our WolframTones website.

Rule 30 (Cellular Automaton)"
Rule 30 (Cellular Automaton) (1983)
Stephen Wolfram
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What began as a fun question to end an interview, has now become a wonderfully eclectic collaborative playlist by 161 people (and counting).
Stephen Wolfram
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