Algorithmic Revolution?

From: Tim May <>
Date: Tue, 19 Nov 2002 01:50:49 -0800

On Monday, November 18, 2002, at 10:15 PM, wrote:

> as just noted by TCM, kevin kelly on a computational/algorithmic TOE,
> wolfram, wheeler, etcetera, from current issue of wired.
> I would say we are all in the midst of some kind
> of "algorithmic revolution" that is sweeping across
> culture, industry, & scientific fields etc. .. more
> on that theme here

I just don't see any such sign of a revolution. No more so than 10
years ago, 20 years ago. Yes, computers are now more powerful. Problems
tend to grow faster in size than computers do, however, and often
having 100x the power only yields a slight improvement in accuracy, not
qualitative leaps or breakthroughs. (Paralleling, no pun intended, the
spacing of the Mersenne primes, where it's taking longer and longer to
brute force find the next one, even with dramatically more computer
power. Or the accelerator energy gap, where 10 times the accelerator
energy doesn't produce much more new physics.)

There are aspects of computers that are always touching on cultural
issues. In the 60s and 70s there was much hype about "general systems
theory" and modeling (a la Bertanlanffy, Arrow, others). Some social
scientists expected a revolution. In the 1980s it was chaos theory, and
fractals, with books on how financial markets are chaotic, how art is
fractal, how civilization lives at the boundary between order and
chaos, and so on. Trendy, and probably implicated somewhere in the
Sokal hoax ("Transgressing the Boundaries," the quantum
mechanics/litcrit/hermeneutics put-on). Not much of lasting value came
out of it, insofar as the revolutions outside of the narrow fields
directly involved are concerned.

In recent years it's been stuff about string theory, to some extent.
The Brian Greene book, "The Elegant Universe," became a best-seller,
even if probably fewer than one out of a hundred buyers got past the
first 20 pages. I don't think many of the coffee table book buyers are
expecting many revolutions outside of physics qua physics.

And of course Wolfram's book is a big seller. I won't comment, except
that I see no particularly strong evidence that he has changed the way
science is done, or will be done. Others have written harsher reviews.
I admire him for his dedication, but I think he missed the boat by not
working with others and working on specific problems.

(Tegmark works on lots of cosmology and observational astronomy
problems, with his Everything paper as just one small facet, almost a
hobby. Working on that theory full-time might make him a frequent
contributor to this list, but would probably not be good either for his
career or for getting any kind of progress or confirmation (!).)

My belief is that basic mathematics is much more important than
computer use, in terms of understanding the cosmos and the nature of

--Tim May
Received on Tue Nov 19 2002 - 04:56:03 PST

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