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Life the universe and a game of chequersA New Kind of ScienceStephen WolframWolfram Media Inc 40 pp1197The tradition of scientists presenting their grand ideas in popular books rather than scientific papers has given us Darwins Origin of Species EO Wilsons sociobiology and Jim Lovelocks Gaia hypothesis The attraction is that the author can expound the central idea at length without the burden of nitpicking detail that accumulates when one has to please ones peers The disadvantage is that the devil is often in those details it is easier to pull the wool over a lay readers eyesStephen Wolframs long-awaited new book demonstrates these pros and cons in spades Few science books have had a grander scope he sets out to solve it all from mathematics to evolution to perception to a theory of everything with an analysis of free will for good measure Yet in the end what we get is a thousand pages of free-floating speculationHis central thesis is that a theory of life might not be encapsulated in a single ber-equation but might consist of an algorithm a set of rules like the lines of a computer programme which when enacted again and again allow the universe to unfold in all its variety This is an immensely stimulating idea and although he has not a shred of direct evidence to support it it is enough to allow this often infuriating book to emerge in creditWolfram is that rare thing an independent scientist and since the early Nineties he has been reclusive working through the nights on his new kind of science His grand idea stems from the study of cellular automata CA a kind of chequers game in which the addition and removal of pieces are dictated by simple rules about the configuration of neighbouring pieces For example a rule might specify that we place a new piece on a blank grid square if there are two pieces on neighbouring squares or remove
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