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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    Predicting Fall Leaves…and Free Will?

    ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Whatdoes mathematics have to do with snowflakes, leaves, and free will? Thesequestions were addressed by Dr. Steven Wolfram on Friday in the StudentActivities Center Auditorium.

    Wolfram spoke about his revolutionary computer programcalled Mathematica in which he attemptsto explain systems in nature through math. The well knownMathematician/Scientist gave a lecture to a SAC Auditorium crowd that filledevery seat as well as some floor space. As he was introduced, it was said ofWolfram’s Mathematica, thatit ‘?could only be talked about in hyperbole.’ Explaining that itis ‘?incredibly brilliant, amazingly simple, and terriblyexpensive.’

    ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Wolframthen took the stage and began explaining his work, using a set of computergenerated pictures as a visual aid. He went into his programs basic concept-the use of cellular automata, which begins like this- Picture one darkenedsquare, with and infinite amount of blank squares to its left and right, and aninfinite amount of rows of blank cells under the original. By making a rulethat the program will follow, you can generate shapes. For example- by tellingthe program on the next line to fill in the square under the darkened squareand the squares to its left and right, you will have a row of three filled insquares on the second line. Then, by telling the program to continue thatpattern on all the lines under that one, you’ll get a row of five on thethird line, seven on the fourth, and so on, creating a pyramid shape. This isthe basic way in which Wolfram says we can explain how mathematical systems canpredict patterns of nature.

    ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Thecommand that creates the pyramid shape is just the beginning of what thisprogram can show. All a user has to do is put in some rule that the squareswill follow, regarding how which will be filled in what situation, and you willproduce a unique pattern. Wolfram argues that all things in nature work inthis way. For example, if you program a different rule for the cellularautomata to follow, you can produce an exact two-dimensional replica of asnowflake. He goes onto explain that the same thing can be done with leaves.If you examine them closely, you see that they are arranged a pattern, morecomplicated than a pyramid, but observable nonetheless. Wolfram says thatthese patterns that may seem random are actually governed by a rule that can bedisplayed by a computer.

    ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Wolframshowed that while some patterns in nature appear totally random, so to docertain computer generated patterns. He explained that when he punches in arule which he labeled ‘?rule 30,’ into his Mathematica program, it produces a pattern in the cellularautomata that looks completely random, even when you observe in from the top tothousands of lines of cells downward. He compares this to Pi, a mathematicallygenerated number whose digits go on forever without any pattern. While theshape of rule 30 is generated by entering a rule into the computer program, thevalue of Pi is generated by dividing the circumference of any circle, divided byits diameter. Wolfram goes onto explain that he believes that the systems innature which we perceive as patternless, are actually just like rule 30, inthat they have started with a relatively simple command, but generate intocomplicated patterns. Thus, understanding systems in nature is just a matterof figuring out the starting rules of those systems.

    ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Accordingto Wolfram all these patterns of nature that we do not yet grasp are as or morecomputationally advanced than our own brains. ‘?Some people will say theweather has a mind of its own, but rather it actually follows a pattern that wehave yet to fully grasp,’ says Wolfram.

    ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Hethen makes the claim that even things as complicated as our own free will issomething that Mathematica hopes to beable to predict. Wolfram says that since our ability to choose what we do isgoverned by our own minds, then there is no way we could be morecomputationally advanced then the system that controls such a thing.

    However, he then says that acomputer system more advanced then a human brain could understand exactly howour wills work and thus predict exactly what we will do and when we will do it.

    While such computer ability is onlytheoretical, Wolfram said that he hopes his work will lead to discovering’?a single simple program that is the ultimate program for theuniverse.’ With each advance in Mathematica, Wolfram said he believes he is getting closer tobeing able to explain the rules that govern the systems that we observe innature and it life.

    Wolfram had his first paperpublished when he was 15, and received his Ph.D. in physics at 20.

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