Stephen Wolfram

Stephen Wolfram

Wolfram in 2008.
Born Stephen Wolfram
(1959-08-29) 29 August 1959
London, England, United Kingdom
Residence Concord, Massachusetts,
United States
Nationality British, American
Education Dragon School[3]
Eton College
Alma mater
Thesis Some Topics in Theoretical High-Energy Physics (1980)
Known for
Influences Richard Crandall,[5] Richard Feynman, George Zweig[6]
Notable awards MacArthur Fellowship (1981)


Stephen Wolfram (born 29 August 1959) is a British-American scientist known for his work in computer science, mathematics, and in theoretical physics.[7][8] He is the author of the book A New Kind of Science.[2] In 2012 he was named an inaugural fellow of the American Mathematical Society.[9]

He is the founder and CEO of the software company Wolfram Research where he worked as chief designer of Mathematica and the Wolfram Alpha answer engine. His recent work has been on knowledge-based programming, expanding and refining the programming language of Mathematica into what is now called the Wolfram Language. His book An Elementary Introduction to the Wolfram Language appeared in 2015 and Idea Makers appeared in 2016.

Early life

Stephen Wolfram was born in London in 1959 to Hugo and Sybil Wolfram.

Hugo Wolfram

Stephen's father, Hugo Wolfram (born 1925 in Bochum, Germany), a textile manufacturer, served as managing director of the Lurex Company, makers of the fabric Lurex and was the author of three novels.[10][11][12][13] He emigrated to England in 1933.[14] When World War II broke out, young Hugo left school at 15 and subsequently found it hard to get a job since he was regarded as an "enemy alien." As an adult, he took correspondence courses in philosophy and psychology.[10]

Sybil Wolfram

Stephen's mother, Sybil Wolfram (1931–1993; born Sybille Misch) was a Fellow and Tutor in philosophy at Lady Margaret Hall at University of Oxford from 1964 to 1993. She published two books, Philosophical Logic: An Introduction (1989)[15] and In-laws and Outlaws: Kinship and Marriage in England (1987).[16][17] She was the translator of Claude Lévi-Strauss's La pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind), but later disavowed the translation.[18][19] She was the daughter of criminologist and psychoanalyst Kate Friedlander (1902–1949), an expert on the subject of juvenile delinquency,[20] and the physician Walter Misch (1889–1943) who, together, wrote Die vegetative Genese der neurotischen Angst und ihre medikamentöse Beseitigung.[21] After the Reichstag fire in 1933, she emigrated from Berlin, Germany to England with her parents and Jewish psychoanalyst, Paula Heimann (1899–1982).[22][23][24]


Stephen is married to a mathematician and they have four children.[25]

Education and early career

As a young child, Wolfram initially struggled in school and had difficulties learning arithmetic.[26] At the age of 12, he wrote a dictionary on physics.[27] By 13 or 14, he had written three books on particle physics.[28][29][30] They were not published.

Particle physics

Wolfram was a wunderkind. By age 15, he began research in applied quantum field theory and particle physics and published scientific papers. Topics included matter creation and annihilation, the fundamental interactions, elementary particles and their currents, hadronic and leptonic physics, and the parton model, published in professional peer-reviewed scientific journals including Nuclear Physics B, Australian Journal of Physics, Nuovo Cimento, and Physical Review D.[31] Working independently, Wolfram published a widely cited paper on heavy quark production at age 18[4] and nine other papers,[17] and continued research and to publish on particle physics into his early twenties. Wolfram's work with Geoffrey C. Fox on the theory of the strong interaction is still used in experimental particle physics.[32]

He was educated at Eton College, but left prematurely in 1976.[33] He entered St. John's College, Oxford at age 17 but found lectures "awful",[17] and left in 1978[34] without graduating[35][36] to attend the California Institute of Technology, the following year, where he received a PhD[37] in particle physics on November 19, 1979 at age 20.[38] Wolfram's thesis committee was composed of Richard Feynman, Peter Goldreich, Frank J. Sciulli and Steven Frautschi, and chaired by Richard D. Field.[38][39]

A 1981 letter from Feynman to Gerald Freund giving reference for Wolfram for the MacArthur grant appears in Feynman's collective letters, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track. Following his PhD, Wolfram joined the faculty at Caltech and became the youngest recipient[40] of the MacArthur Fellowships in 1981, at age 21.[35]

Later career

Complex systems and cellular automata

In 1983, Wolfram left for the School of Natural Sciences of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he conducted research into cellular automata,[41][42][43][44][45] mainly with computer simulations. He produced a series of papers systematically investigating the class of elementary cellular automata, conceiving the Wolfram code, a naming system for one-dimensional cellular automata, and a classification scheme for the complexity of their behaviour.[46]He conjectured that the Rule 110 cellular automaton might be Turing complete.

A 1985 letter, from Feynman to Wolfram, also appears in Feynman's letters. In it, in response to Wolfram writing to him that he was thinking about creating some kind of institute where he might study complex systems, Feynman tells Wolfram, "You do not understand ordinary people," and advises him "find a way to do your research with as little contact with non-technical people as possible."[47]

In the mid-1980s, Wolfram worked on simulations of physical processes (such as turbulent fluid flow) with cellular automata on the Connection Machine alongside Richard Feynman[48] and helped initiate the field of complex systems, founding the first institute devoted to this subject, The Center for Complex Systems Research (CCSR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign[49] and the journal Complex Systems in 1987.[49]

Symbolic Manipulation Program

Wolfram led the development of the computer algebra system SMP (Symbolic Manipulation Program) in the Caltech physics department during 1979–1981. A dispute with the administration over the intellectual property rights regarding SMP—patents, copyright, and faculty involvement in commercial ventures—eventually caused him to resign from Caltech.[50] SMP was further developed and marketed commercially by Inference Corp. of Los Angeles during 1983–1988.


Main article: Mathematica

In 1986 Wolfram left the Institute for Advanced Study for the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign where he founded their Center for Complex Systems Research and started to develop the computer algebra system Mathematica, which was first released in 1988, when he left academia. In 1987 he founded a company called Wolfram Research which continues to develop and market the program.[4]

Near the end of Sybil Wolfram's life, as part of her research for In-laws and Outlaws, she used her son's program Mathematica to analyze her data.[22]

Wolfram's younger brother, Conrad Wolfram, serves as CEO of Wolfram Research Europe, Ltd.[51][52]

A New Kind of Science

Main article: A New Kind of Science

From 1992 to 2002, he worked on his controversial book A New Kind of Science,[4][53] which presents an empirical study of very simple computational systems. Additionally, it argues that for fundamental reasons these types of systems, rather than traditional mathematics, are needed to model and understand complexity in nature. Wolfram's conclusion is that the universe is digital in its nature, and runs on fundamental laws which can be described as simple programs. He predicts that a realisation of this within the scientific communities will have a major and revolutionary influence on physics, chemistry and biology and the majority of the scientific areas in general, which is the reason for the book's title.

Since the release of the book in 2002, Wolfram has split his time between developing Mathematica and encouraging people to get involved with the subject matter of A New Kind of Science by giving talks, holding conferences, and starting a summer school devoted to the topic.[54]

Wolfram Alpha computational knowledge engine

Main article: Wolfram Alpha

In March 2009, Wolfram announced Wolfram|Alpha, an answer engine. Wolfram|Alpha later launched in May 2009,[55] and a paid-for version with extra features launched on February 2012.[56] The engine is based on natural language processing and a large library of algorithms, and answers queries using the approach described in A New Kind of Science. The application programming interface allows other applications to extend and enhance Alpha.[57] Wolfram believes that as Wolfram Alpha comes into common use, "It will raise the level of scientific things that the average person can do."[58]

Wolfram|Alpha is one of the answer engines behind Microsoft's Bing[59][60] and Apple's Siri answering factual questions.[61]

Wolfram Language

Main article: Wolfram Language

In June 2014, Wolfram officially announced the Wolfram Language as a new general multi-paradigm programming language.[62] The documentation for the language was pre-released in October 2013 to coincide with the bundling of Mathematica and the Wolfram Language on every Raspberry Pi computer. While the Wolfram Language has existed for over 25 years as the primary programming language used in Mathematica, it was not officially named until 2014.[63] Wolfram's son, Christopher Wolfram, appeared on the program of SXSW giving a live-coding demonstration using Wolfram Language[64] and has blogged about Wolfram Language for Wolfram Research.[65]

On 8 December 2015, Wolfram published the book "An Elementary Introduction to the Wolfram Language" to introduce people with no knowledge of programming to the Wolfram Language and the kind of computational thinking it allows.[66]

Both Stephen Wolfram and Christopher Wolfram were involved in helping create the alien language for the film Arrival, for which they used the Wolfram Language.[67][68][69]

Personal Analytics

The significance data has on the products Stephen creates transfers into his own life. He has an extensive log of personal analytics - including emails received and sent, key strokes made, meetings and events attended, phone calls, even physical movement dating back to the 1980s. He has stated "[personal analytics] can give us a whole new dimension to experiencing our lives"[70]


Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People (2016)[71]

Elementary Introduction to the Wolfram Language (2015)[72]

A New Kind of Science (2002)

The Mathematica Book (multiple editions)

Cellular Automata and Complexity: Collected Papers (1994)

Theory and Applications of Cellular Automata (1986)


  1. Wolfram, S. (2013). "Computer algebra". Proceedings of the 38th international symposium on International symposium on symbolic and algebraic computation - ISSAC '13. p. 7. doi:10.1145/2465506.2465930. ISBN 9781450320597.
  2. 1 2 Stephen Wolfram's publications indexed by the Scopus bibliographic database, a service provided by Elsevier. (subscription required)
  3. My Life in Technology—As Told at the Computer History Museum
  4. 1 2 3 4 Giles, J. (2002). "Stephen Wolfram: What kind of science is this?". Nature. 417 (6886): 216–218. Bibcode:2002Natur.417..216G. doi:10.1038/417216a. PMID 12015565.
  5. Wolfram, S. (2013). "Remembering Richard Crandall (1947--2012)". ACM Communications in Computer Algebra. 47: 14. doi:10.1145/2503697.2503700.
  6. Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science, p. xiv.
  7. "Stephen Wolfram". Wolfram Alpha. Retrieved 15 May 2012.
  8. "Stephen Wolfram: 'I am an information pack rat'". New Scientist. Retrieved 19 April 2014.
  9. List of Fellows of the American Mathematical Society, retrieved 1 September 2013.
  10. 1 2 Telling a good yarn by Jenny Lunnon, Oxford Times, Thursday 21 September 2006.
  11. PHYSICIST AWARDED 'GENIUS' PRIZE FINDS REALITY IN INVISIBLE WORLD, by GLADWIN HILL, Special to the New York Times, Published: May 24, 1981
  12. Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center: Wolfram, Hugo (1925- ): "The Hugo Wolfram collection consists of manuscripts by Wolfram for novels, short stories, and essays."
  13. Kirkus review of Into a Neutral Country, 1969
  14. Hugo Wolfram. 1925- , Jüdische Schriftstellerinnen und Schriftsteller in Westfalen.
  15. Philosophical Logic: An Introduction by Sybil Wolfram, 2014 [1989].
  16. In-laws and Outlaws: Kinship and Marriage in England by Sybil Wolfram, 1987.
  17. 1 2 3 Levy, Steven. "The Man Who Cracked The Code to Everything ..." (10.06). Wired. Retrieved 2015-03-03.
  18. Letter to the Editor, American Anthropologist, February, 1967.
  19. Times Literary Supplement, October 29, 2008. "The century of Claude Lévi-Strauss: How the great anthropologist, now approaching his 100th birthday, has earned a place in the prestigious Pléiade library", by Patrick Wilcken.
  20. The Psycho-Analytical Approach to Juvenile Delinquency: Theory, Case Studies, Treatment by Kate Friedlander, 1998[1947].
  21. Kate Friedländer née Frankl (1902-1949), Psychoanalytikerinnen. Biografisches Lexikon. Trans.: "The vegetative genesis of neurotic anxiety and drug elimination"
  22. 1 2 Smith, M. E.. (1993). Obituary. Anthropology Today, 9(6), 22–22. Retrieved from
  23. FRIEDLANDER, KATE in Jewish Virtual Library.
  24. Kate Friedländer née Frankl (1902-1949), Psychoanalytikerinnen. Biografisches Lexikon.
  25. "Stephen Wolfram". Sunday Profile. 2009-05-31. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
  26. PHYSICIST AWARDED 'GENIUS' PRIZE FINDS REALITY IN INVISIBLE WORLD, by GLADWIN HILL, Special to the New York Times, Published: May 24, 1981: "When I first went to school, they thought I was behind, he says, because I didn't want to read the silly books they gave us. And I never was able to do arithmetic. It was when he got into higher mathematics, such as calculus, he says, that he realized there was an invisible world that he wanted to explore."
  27. S. Wolfram (1972). Concise Directory of Physics (PDF).
  28. S. Wolfram (1973). The Physics of Subatomic Particles (PDF).
  29. S. Wolfram (1974). Introduction to the Weak Interaction (PDF). 1.
  30. S. Wolfram (1974). Introduction to the Weak Interaction (PDF). 2.
  31. Stephen Wolfram: Articles on Particle Physics
  32. Fox, G.; Wolfram, S. (1978). "Observables for the Analysis of Event Shapes in e^{+}e^{-} Annihilation and Other Processes". Physical Review Letters. 41 (23): 1581. Bibcode:1978PhRvL..41.1581F. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.41.1581.
  33. A Speech for (High-School) Graduates by Stephen Wolfram a commencement speech for Stanford Online High School,, June 9, 2014: "You know, as it happens, I myself never officially graduated from high school, and this is actually the first high school graduation I’ve ever been to."
  34. Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell, 2009, p. 151: “In the early 1980s, Stephen Wolfram, a physicist working at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, became fascinated by cellular automata and the patterns they make. Wolfram is one of those legendary child prodigies people like to tell stories about. Born in London in 1959, Wolfram published his first physics paper at 15. Two years later, in the summer after his first year at Oxford, . . . Wolfram wrote a paper in the field of “quantum chromodynamics” that attracted the attention of Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who invited Wolfram to join his group at Caltech…”
  35. 1 2 Arndt, Michael (17 May 2002). "Stephen Wolfram's Simple Science". BusinessWeek. Retrieved 20 August 2015.
  36. Stephen Wolfram: 'The textbook has never interested me': The British child genius who abandoned physics to devote himself to coding and the cosmos, by Zoë Corbyn, The Guardian, Saturday 28 June 2014: "He entered Oxford University at 17 without A-levels and left around a year later without graduating. He was bored and he had been invited to cross the pond by the prestigious California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to do a PhD. "I had written a bunch of papers and so was pretty well known by that time,"" ...
  37. Stephen Wolfram at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  38. 1 2 Wolfram, Stephen (1980). Some Topics in Theoretical High-Energy Physics (PhD thesis). California Institute of Technology.
  39. Application
  40. "About Stephen Wolfram". Retrieved 2015-10-13.
  41. Wolfram, S. (1984). "Computation theory of cellular automata". Communications in Mathematical Physics. 96: 15–57. Bibcode:1984CMaPh..96...15W. doi:10.1007/BF01217347.
  42. Martin, O.; Odlyzko, A. M.; Wolfram, S. (1984). "Algebraic properties of cellular automata". Communications in Mathematical Physics. 93 (2): 219. Bibcode:1984CMaPh..93..219M. doi:10.1007/BF01223745.
  43. Wolfram, S. (1986). "Cellular automaton fluids 1: Basic theory". Journal of Statistical Physics. 45 (3–4): 471–526. Bibcode:1986JSP....45..471W. doi:10.1007/BF01021083.
  44. Wolfram, S. (1984). "Cellular automata as models of complexity". Nature. 311 (5985): 419–424. Bibcode:1984Natur.311..419W. doi:10.1038/311419a0.
  45. Wolfram, S. (1983). "Statistical mechanics of cellular automata". Reviews of Modern Physics. 55 (3): 601. Bibcode:1983RvMP...55..601W. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.55.601.
  46. Regis, Ed (1987). Who Got Einstein's Office: Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study, Addison-Wesley, Reading. ISBN 0201120658
  47. Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track by Richard Feynman, 2006, p. 330.
  48. W. Daniel Hillis (February 1989). "Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine". Physics Today. Retrieved 3 November 2006.
  49. 1 2 "The Man Who Cracked The Code to Everything". Wired. Retrieved 7 April 2012.
  50. Kolata, G. (1983). "Caltech Torn by Dispute over Software". Science. 220 (4600): 932–934. Bibcode:1983Sci...220..932K. doi:10.1126/science.220.4600.932. PMID 17816011.
  51. Bio,
  52. "Stephen Wolfram". Retrieved 11 May 2009.
  53. ISBN 1579550088
  54. TED (2010): Stephen Wolfram: Scientist, inventor. Online (accessed 19 January 2010).
  55. Wolfram, Stephen (5 March 2009). "Wolfram|Alpha Is Coming!". Wolfram blog. Retrieved 9 March 2009.
  56. "Announcing Wolfram|Alpha Pro". Wolfram|Alpha blog. Retrieved 7 April 2012.
  57. Johnson, Bobbie (9 March 2009). "British search engine 'could rival Google'". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 March 2009.
  58. Wolfram|Alpha: Searching for Truth by Rudy Rucker, H+ Magazine, April 6, 2009.
  59. "Answering your questions with Bing and Wolfram Alpha". "Microsoft's Bing blog". Retrieved 7 April 2012.
  60. Stephen Wolfram Talks Bing Partnership, Software Strategy, and the Future of Knowledge Computing by Gregory T. Huang, Xconomy, January 5th, 2010.
  61. "iPhone features". Apple. Retrieved 7 April 2012.
  62. Wolfram Language reference page Retrieved on 14 May 2014.
  63. Slate's article Stephen Wolfram's New Programming Language: He Can Make The World Computable, 6 March 2014. Retrieved on 14 May 2014.
  64. What Tech Makes Possible in EDU Research, SXSW Panelpicker.
  65. New in the Wolfram Language: Cryptography, May 15, 2015 by Christopher Wolfram, Connectivity Group
  66. Stephen Wolfram - I Wrote a Book — To Teach the Wolfram Language
  67. How Arrival's Designers Crafted a Mesmerizing Language, Margaret Rhodes, Wired, November 16, 2016.
  68. "Dissecting the alien language in 'Arrival'". Engadget. Retrieved 2016-11-16.
  69. "Quick, How Might the Alien Spacecraft Work?—Stephen Wolfram". Retrieved 2016-11-16.
  70. Stephen, Wolfram. "The Personal Analytics of My Life". Wired. Retrieved Oct 18, 2016.
  71. ‘Idea Makers’ tackles scientific thinkers’ big ideas and personal lives / Human side of science emphasized in new book by Tom Siegfried, Science News, August 13, 2016.
  72. Stephen Wolfram Aims to Democratize His Software by Steve Lohr, The New York Times, December 14, 2015.

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