Should you take Wolfram’s physics seriously?

Alex Lamb
The Startup
Published in
9 min readApr 24, 2020

Stephen Wolfram recently announced his new Physics Project, an attempt to rethink how we do physics in terms of simple operations on abstract structures. And already there are people in the physics community expressing opinions about it ranging from disapproval to disinterest.

As non-physicists, what should be our take? Awe? An indifferent shrug? An eye roll? Is it really worth our time to contribute to his crowd-sourced investigation of a new way of looking at reality? I say yes. A thousand times yes, even though I don’t agree with everything in Wolfram’s approach. If you take the long view, it may be the most valuable thing you ever do with your free time.

Why should you be interested in my opinion? Because I’ve conducted over twenty years of research into the intersection between foundational physics and computation. I’ve worked with both physicists and computer scientists. I’ve listened to concerns and passions on both sides of this quiet but persistent debate and I’m sympathetic to all of them.

Here’s why you should care: fundamental physics has a problem and it affects all of us. Brave members of the academic community have already stood up to admit it— people like Lee Smolin and Sabine Hossenfelder. They’ve written at length about their concerns over their field drifting further and further into abstruse mathematics and further from experimental testability. And without advances in physics, our development as a species is truncated. We remain technologically trapped while the climate worsens and our resources dwindle. A lack of progress in physics may eventually kill us.

Nobody seems to know where to look for the breakthrough that’s needed to push the field forward. The leading candidate theory from the last two decades — string theory — has failed to deliver testable predictions and its credibility is inevitably eroding.

There are, of course, clues about what might replace it. From dimensional analysis, there are strong reasons to believe that space is not smooth, but somehow granular. Contributions from condensed matter physics suggest that the best way to describe space may be a mesh of entangled elements. And approaches like the Causal Set Program, which model the universe as a directed graph of connected event-nodes, have already shown…

Alex Lamb
The Startup

ML team manager, complex systems theorist, science fiction author, data scientist, communication skills trainer, improviser, painter, futurist, dad, etc.