The second dawn of literacy: Stephen Wolfram on leaving academia to pursue the crazy and the impossible

Stephen Wolfram’s life has been spent on the border of what’s considered possible. That can mean either trying to convince people that the ideas he has can actually be executed, or looking on amused as areas in which he worked 20 years ago suddenly enter the public consciousness.

It’s how he likes it.

He’s Founder and CEO of Wolfram Research, a company perhaps best known for Wolfram|Alpha®. It’s a search engine that, it is said, can make Google look like Alta Vista and helps power Siri. The company is also responsible for Mathematica, one of the world’s foremost programmes for math and computation, and Wolfram Language, a coding language Stephen suggests could have as big an impact on the world as human language.

Stephen has also written A New Kind of Science, a textbook that’s been simultaneously called the “most arrogant piece of science writing”, and “most important contribution to science this decade”. As he says himself, he enjoys pursuing “crazy projects”.

“It’s what I spend my life doing. I think it’s a version of egotism that makes me like to do things I feel other people wouldn’t. What I probably take the most pride in is creating what I call alien artefacts: things that people can only understand once they’re created,” says Stephen.

It could have all been very different if he had stayed in the “monastic” world of academia 27 years ago.

Humans don’t need to know C++

Stephen says that he’s fortunate to be a “very weird data point in the world of tech”. He’s run one company for close to 30 years and has been afforded the luxury of seeing out long-term projects to their conclusion. He says that most tech companies are either venture capital funded and predicated on achieving a rapid return, or slaves to constant technological changes to their platforms. He’s been allowed to do it his way.

Wolfram Language has been in development in one form or another for 30 years. Stephen says that it draws on the whole stack of technology he’s worked on throughout his career.

The language relies on automation and AI so that the “grungy details” of traditional programming are cast aside. The end result is a coding language that doesn’t look anything that gets taught in schools and universities across the world.

“The programming that ends up being taught are the standard low-level computer languages such as Java and C++. I think it’s sort of bizarre to try to teach that to the general population because those things are low-level languages, built in many respects for the convenience of computers,” says Stephen.

He says that Wolfram Language will allow for the teaching of computational thinking principles without having to get embroiled in the details of primitive programming. Humans and computers are the two dominant forces in this world. It’s good to understand how our computational counterparts think, he says. What this understanding will achieve however, he’s not yet sure.

An indicator might lie in events 500 years ago.

“I don’t care what other people say” – Stephen sets out his manifesto

The second dawn of literacy

Stephen likes to set himself a little exercise. He tries to put himself back in the days when human language was first developing and tries to imagine whether he could envision what this new form of communication would make possible. He admits he struggles.

“I’ve been curious, looking back 500 years at the dawn of literacy, about the aspects of modern society and civilisation that were basically enabled by the advent of literacy. The question of what is enabled by widespread programming capability is hard to imagine. But we have a new level of communication that’s starting to exist. What will that make possible?” says Stephen.

Stephen wouldn’t be imagining these possibilities if he hadn’t ended his academic career, a career his early achievements suggested he was made for.

Having written four textbook-length physics works by the age of 14, he became the youngest PhD to come out of Caltech by 20. Two years later he was the youngest recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Grant”. He settled into a life of academia in 1980, beginning an eight-year stint that took him from from the California Institute of Technology to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and finally the University of Illinois.

If he learned one thing during this tour it was that academic life didn’t suit him. He says he particularly enjoys two things about his career in tech. Two things that he didn’t experience in the universities that once employed him: the pace at which he’s allowed work and the breadth of what he’s allowed to explore.

“There’s a certain slow, one might almost say monastic, pace to the way that things happen in academia. There’s also a small-mindedness to what people think one should do,” says Stephen.

Although he says that academia has evolved over the years, he was turned off by the arduous process of consulting an endless parade of committees before embarking on any serious project. He also disliked the pigeonholing of academics into particular branches of science. Once an academic showed an aptitude in a certain field, heaven forbid they should move outside it.

He didn’t think the ideas he was having could be transformed into something tangible.

“In academia, it’s sort of like, ‘’Well you can do something and then write a paper about it and maybe people will read it. Then maybe five years or ten years will pass and something might happen. Whereas in the entrepreneurial world you can just say, ‘OK, let’s just do it,’” says Stephen.

Stephen founded Wolfram Research in 1986. It didn’t take long for his ideas to be executed. This wasn’t the world of writing papers that nobody would read. The first software the firm produced was launched in 1988 and by 1995 boasted over a million users.

The proud anti-establishmentarian

A common charge levelled against Stephen is that he’s anti-establishment. As a student at Eton, it’s been said that teachers were amazed at his intelligence yet frustrated by his refusal to take any instruction. Senior professors in Princeton didn’t consider his computer-based research conducted at standup desks to be “real science”.

It’s a charge that Stephen readily accepts. “As soon as something becomes established, it is in a sense slowed down. It’s institutionalised and for the next 50 years that field operates according to an established order. My wife always criticises me for having to figure stuff out for myself and never doing things the way that the world already knows. I like to figure stuff out for myself,” says Stephen.

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