An interview with Stephen Wolfram: has he found a Theory of Everything?

Professor Brian Keating
18 min readApr 23, 2020
Simple Complexity: Rule 30, one of Wolfram’s favorite figures.

I enjoyed doing this wide ranging interview with Stephen Wolfram. I have always enjoyed his writings and candor, even when I often find some of his ideas hard to grasp. His latest work — The Wolfram Physics Project has a modest goal:with it, he hopes to find fundamental theory of physics!

His voracious intellectual appetite spans the full landscape of imagination and creativity. Since I run UC San Diego’s Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination’s The INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE Podcast, I thought it fitting to begin the discussion by asking about his thoughts on science fiction and especially Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. It turned out, Stephen had written about the film:

This led into a discussion about the film Arrival, which he worded on as well as his new “Physics project” which purports to be a fundamental theory of physics.

We made frequent reference to his wonderful book, Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People (2016) as well as his recent book, Adventures of a Computational Explorer (2019). I mentioned my opinion is that readers should view these as companions to the new Physics Project. In so doing, one can fully grasp the ambitious goal Stephen and his team have set out to achieve!

We segued from there to the film Arrival and his thoughts on language as an algorithm. He and his son Christopher worked on the movie Arrival as a vector no pun to get ideas into public.

He discussed the challenges and opportunities of working on a film in hisbook Adventures of a Computational Explorer:

“The aliens must directly manipulate the spacetime network at the Planck scale”. “There’s spacetime turbulence around the skin of the ship”. “It’s like the skin of the ship has an infinite number of types of atoms, not just the 115 elements we know” (that was going to be related to shining a monochromatic laser at the ship and seeing it come back looking like a rainbow). It’s fun for an “actual scientist” like me to come up with stuff like this. It’s kind of liberating. Especially since every one of these science-fictiony pieces of dialogue can lead one into a long, serious physics discussion.”

We then turn to his work on Mathematica and the intersection it had with Steve Jobs. Speaking of Jobs, one of Jobs’s closest friends and colleagues Guy Kawasaki, hosted Stephen on his Remarkable People podcast. I have met Stephen only once, but his breadth of knowledge blew my mind. I’ve been waiting for a podcast episode like this ever since. Here’s the official description from Guy Kawasaki (@GuyKawasaki): “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to get a PhD in Physics at 20 and win a MacArthur [‘Genius Grant’] Award at 21? You’ll get to find out with this episode’s interview of Remarkable People with Stephen Wolfram. Saying he is a ‘physicist’ is like saying LeBron James is a ‘basketball player.’ If you’re a math geek, you’ve probably used a product he created called Mathematica. He’s also built a knowledge engine called Wolfram Alpha that you have used in Siri, Alexa, Bing, or DuckDuckGo.” Listen to the interview on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’ve previously recommended this post on personal productivity systems from Stephen, which is still worth checking out.”

On the philosophical front, we compared Godel to Popper and discussed computational irreducibly which arose from Stephen’s interest in Godel and Alan Turing’s work.

We concluded the conversation by discussing ‘light’ topics such as the meaning of life and his legacy…

This was really fun an rewarding for me. It reminded me of Stephen’s own purpose in writing Idea Makers: “I wish I could have personally known all the people I write about in this book. But for those who died long ago it feels like a good second best to read so many documents they wrote — and somehow to get in and understand their lives. My greatest personal passion remains trying to build the future. But I hope that through understanding the past I may be able to do it a little better — and perhaps help build it on a more informed and solid basis. For now, though, I’m just happy to have been able to spend a little time on some remarkable people and their remarkable lives — and I hope that we’ll all be able to learn something from them.”

I’m so happy I got the chance to share a little bit of what Stephen has learned from brilliant minds such as himself.

Some resources and links

UCSD’s Arrival Event with author Ted Chiang was held in late 2016. It can be found here: Arrival Premiere with Writer Ted Chiang

His latest book (Adventures) starts with intelligent aliens and the challenge of communication with them — also an obsession of our namesake Arthur C. Clarke. We have links to code. “Of course, in Arrival, we already know that the aliens share some things with us. After all, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, even from their shape we recognize the aliens’ spaceships as artifacts. They don’t seem like weird meteorites or something; they seem like something that was made “on purpose”.

“Actually, there’s even more than that. If the microscopic updatings of the underlying network end up being random enough, then it turns out that if the network succeeds in corresponding in the limit to a finite dimensional space, then this space must satisfy Einstein’s Equations of General Relativity. It’s again a little like what happens with fluids. If the microscopic interactions between molecules are random enough, but satisfy number and momentum conservation, then it follows that the overall continuum fluid must satisfy the standard Navier–Stokes equations. But now we’re deriving something like that for the universe: we’re saying that these networks with almost nothing “built in” somehow generate behavior that corresponds to gravitation in physics. This is all spelled out in the NEW KIND OF SCIENCE book. And many physicists have certainly read that part of the book. But somehow every time I actually describe this (as I did a few days ago), there’s a certain amazement. Special and General Relativity are things that physicists normally assume are built into theories right from the beginning, almost as axioms (or at least, in the case of string theory, as consistency conditions). The idea that they could emerge from something more fundamental is pretty alien. The alien feeling doesn’t stop there. Another thing that seems alien is the idea that our whole universe and its complete history could be generated just by starting with some particular small network, then applying definite rules. For the past 75+ years, quantum mechanics has been the pride of physics, and it seems to suggest that this kind of deterministic thinking just can’t be correct. It’s a slightly long story (often still misunderstood by physicists), but between the arbitrariness of updating orders that produce a given causal network, and the fact that in a network one doesn’t just have something like local 3D space, it looks as if one automatically starts to get a lot of the core phenomena of quantum mechanics — even from what’s in effect a deterministic underlying model. OK, but what is the rule for our universe? I don’t know yet. Searching for it isn’t easy. One tries a sequence of different possibilities. Then one runs each one. Then the question is: has one found our universe?”

My question: that was then, what do you think now?

On the implications of finding a simple rule that matches existing laws of physics:

I certainly think it’ll be an interesting — almost metaphysical — moment if we finally have a simple rule which we can tell is our universe. And we’ll be able to know that our particular universe is number such-and-such in the enumeration of all possible universes. It’s a sort of Copernican moment: we’ll get to know just how special or not our universe is. Something I wonder is just how to think about whatever the answer turns out to be. It somehow reminds me of situations from earlier in the history of science. Newton figured out about motion of the planets, but couldn’t imagine anything but a supernatural being first setting them in motion. Darwin figured out about biological evolution, but couldn’t imagine how the first living cell came to be. We may have the rule for the universe, but it’s something quite different to understand why it’s that rule and not another. Universe hunting is a very technology-intensive business. Over the years, I’ve gradually been building up the technology I think is needed — and quite a bit of it is showing up in strange corners of Mathematica. But I think it’s going to be a while longer before there are more results. And before we can put “Our Universe” as a Demonstration in the Wolfram Demonstrations Project. And before we can take our new ParticleData computable data collection and derive every number in it. But universe hunting is a good hobby.”

Stephen’s Life hacks are phenomenal! Find them here:

What is his Mission Statement:

I’ve built a whole science out of studying the universe of possible programs — and have discovered that even very simple ones can generate all sorts of rich and complex behavior. That’s turned out to be relevant in modeling all sorts of systems in the physical and biological and social sciences, and in discovering interesting technology, and so on. But here’s my big hobby question: what about our physical universe? Could it be operating according to one of these simple rules?”

Guy Kawasaki calls him the smartest man i’ve ever met. On a par with another Steve — Jobs

Stephen Wolfram on Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast. I have met Stephen only once, but his breadth of knowledge blew my mind. I’ve been waiting for a podcast episode like this ever since. Here’s the official description from Guy Kawasaki (@GuyKawasaki): “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to get a PhD in Physics at 20 and win a MacArthur [‘Genius Grant’] Award at 21? You’ll get to find out with this episode’s interview of Remarkable People with Stephen Wolfram. Saying he is a ‘physicist’ is like saying LeBron James is a ‘basketball player.’ If you’re a math geek, you’ve probably used a product he created called Mathematica. He’s also built a knowledge engine called Wolfram Alpha that you have used in Siri, Alexa, Bing, or DuckDuckGo.” Listen to the interview on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’ve previously recommended this post on personal productivity systems from Stephen, which is still worth checking out.Tim Berners Lee and website.

Well, it so happens that there’s a class of computational systems that I’ve studied for decades that I think fit the bill remarkably well: cellular automata. They’re based on simple rules that are easy to display visually. And they work by repeatedly applying these rules, and often generating complex patterns — that we now know can be used as the basis for all sorts of interesting technology. From looking at cellular automata one can actually start to build up a whole world view, or, as I called the book I wrote about such things, A New Kind of Science. But what if we want to communicate more traditional ideas in human science and mathematics? What should we do then? Maybe we could start by showing 2D geometrical figures. Gauss suggested back around 1820 that one could carve a picture of the standard visual for the Pythagorean theorem out of the Siberian forest, for aliens to see.

It’s awfully easy to fall into implicitly assuming a lot of human context. Pioneer 10 — the human artifact that’s gone further into interstellar space than any other (currently about 11 billion miles, which is about 0.05% of the distance to α Centauri) — provides one of my favorite examples. There’s a plaque on that spacecraft that includes a representation of the wavelength of the 21-centimeter spectral line of hydrogen. Now the most obvious way to represent that would probably just be a line 21 cm long. But back in 1972 Carl Sagan and others decided to do something “more scientific”, and instead made a schematic diagram of the quantum mechanical process leading to the spectral line. The problem is that this diagram relies on conventions from human textbooks — like using arrows to represent quantum spins — that really have nothing to do with the underlying concepts and are incredibly specific to the details of how science happened to develop for us humans.”

From the audience he responded to some questions including “what does he believe a scientific theory should be?” and “Does mathematical beauty matter at all, or is it just falsifiability?”

The Story of Rule 30

How can something that simple produce something that complex? It’s been nearly 40 years since I first saw rule 30 — but it still amazes me. Long ago it became my personal all-time favorite science discovery, and over the years it’s changed my whole worldview and led me to all sorts of science, technology, philosophy and more.

Can you teach creativity? You’ve spent time thinking whether you can teach physics to a computer. But can you teach it the intangibles? What about to kids — SW has FOUR KIDS AND WORKS WITH AT LEAST ONE OF THEM and students?. From Book “In terms of scale, making a movie like Arrival is a project of about the same size as releasing a major new version of the Wolfram Language. And it’s clear there are some similarities — as well as lots of differences. Both involve all sorts of ideas and creativity. Both involve pulling together lots of different kinds of skills. Both have to have everything fit together to make a coherent product in the end.” And:”I’ve led a few dozen major software releases in my life. And one might think that by now I’d have got to the point where doing a software release would just be a calm and straightforward process. But it never is. Perhaps it’s because we’re always trying to do majorly new and innovative things. Or perhaps it’s just the nature of such projects. But I’ve found that to get the project done to the quality level I want always requires a remarkable degree of personal intensity. Yes, at least in the case of our company, there are always extremely talented people working on the project. But somehow there are always things to do that nobody expected, and it takes a lot of energy, focus, and pushing to get them all together. At times, I’ve imagined that the process might be a little like making a movie.

On leadership: The early years of Mathematica, for example, we even used to have “software credits” that looked very much like movie credits — except that the categories of contributors were things that often had to be made up by me (“lead package developers”, “expression formatting”, “lead font designer”, …). But after a decade or so, recognizing the patchwork of contributions to different versions just became too complex, and so we had to give up on software credits. Still, for a while I thought we’d try having “wrap parties”, just like for movies. But somehow when the scheduled party came around, there was always some critical software issue that had come up, and the key contributors couldn’t come to the party because they were off fixing it.

What’s your legacy?

“A few years ago I was visiting a museum and looking at little wooden models of life in ancient Egypt that had been buried with some king several millennia ago. “How sad,” I thought. “They imagined this would help them in the afterlife. But it didn’t work; instead it just ended up in a museum.” But then it struck me: “No, it did work! This is their ‘afterlife’!” And they successfully transmitted some essence of their life to a world far beyond their own.”


“In a now famous thought experiment, the philosopher Derek Parfit asks us to imagine a teleportation device that can beam a person from Earth to Mars. Rather than travel for many months on a spaceship, you need only enter a small chamber close to home and push a green button, and all the information in your brain and body will be sent to a similar station on Mars, where you will be reassembled down to the last atom. Imagine that several of your friends have already traveled to Mars this way and seem none the worse for it. They describe the experience as being one of instantaneous relocation: You push the green button and find yourself standing on Mars — where your most recent memory is of pushing the green button on Earth and wondering if anything would happen. So you decide to travel to Mars yourself. However, in the process of arranging your trip, you learn a troubling fact about the mechanics of teleportation: It turns out that the technicians wait for a person’s replica to be built on Mars before obliterating his original body on Earth. This has the benefit of leaving nothing to chance; if something goes wrong in the replication process, no harm has been done. However, it raises the following concern: While your double is beginning his day on Mars with all your memories, goals, and prejudices intact, you will be standing in the teleportation chamber on Earth, just staring at the green button. Imagine a voice coming over the intercom to congratulate you for arriving safely at your destination; in a few moments, you are told, your Earth body will be smashed to atoms. How would this be any different from simply being killed?”

Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Soren Kierkegaard said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” What mysterious aspect of life perplexed you as a 20–30 year old, but makes perfect sense to you today? What insight into human nature have you developed?

Can curiously creativity and imagination be taught?

The lessons he learned from Charles Darwin.

The Origin of Species its last line — Endless forms most beautiful

Wolfram has turned his attention to the development of a new fundamental theory of physics. Find a pre-print version of it here:

The Physics Project is described on his channel here: and here:

Find Stephen Wolfram on the web and Twitter

Find his TED talk here:

Find Brian Keating on Twitter.

Please subscribe, rate, & review the INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE Podcast on iTunes for a chance to win a copy of Stephen’s latest book:

Stephen Wolfram is the creator of Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha and the Wolfram Language; the author of A New Kind of Science; and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. Over the course of nearly four decades, he has been a pioneer in the development and application of computational thinking — and has been responsible for many discoveries, inventions and innovations in science, technology and business.

Born in London in 1959, Wolfram was educated at Eton, Oxford and Caltech. He published his first scientific paper at the age of 15, and had received his PhD in theoretical physics from Caltech by the age of 20. Wolfram’s early scientific work was mainly in high-energy physics, quantum field theory and cosmology, and included several now-classic results. Having started to use computers in 1973, Wolfram rapidly became a leader in the emerging field of scientific computing, and in 1979 he began the construction of SMP — the first modern computer algebra system — which he released commercially in 1981.

In recognition of his early work in physics and computing, Wolfram became in 1981 the youngest recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Late in 1981 Wolfram then set out on an ambitious new direction in science aimed at understanding the origins of complexity in nature. Wolfram’s first key idea was to use computer experiments to study the behavior of simple computer programs known as cellular automata. And starting in 1982, this allowed him to make a series of startling discoveries about the origins of complexity. The papers Wolfram published quickly had a major impact, and laid the groundwork for the emerging field that Wolfram called complex systems research.

Through the mid-1980s, Wolfram continued his work on complexity, discovering a number of fundamental connections between computation and nature, and inventing such concepts as computational irreducibility. Wolfram’s work led to a wide range of applications — and provided the main scientific foundations for such initiatives as complexity theory and artificial life. Wolfram himself used his ideas to develop a new randomness generation system and a new approach to computational fluid dynamics — both of which are now in widespread use.

Following his scientific work on complex systems research, in 1986 Wolfram founded the first journal in the field, Complex Systems, and its first research center. Then, after a highly successful career in academia — first at Caltech, then at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and finally as Professor of Physics, Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Illinois — Wolfram launched Wolfram Research, Inc.

Wolfram began the development of Mathematica in late 1986. The first version of Mathematica was released on June 23, 1988, and was immediately hailed as a major advance in computing. In the years that followed, the popularity of Mathematica grew rapidly, and Wolfram Research became established as a world leader in the software industry, widely recognized for excellence in both technology and business. From its beginnings as a technical computing system, Mathematica has grown dramatically in scope over the years — and over the course of more than three decades, it has been responsible for many important inventions and discoveries in a vast range of fields and industries, as well as being a central tool in the education of generations of students.

In 1991, Wolfram began to divide his time between Mathematica development and scientific research. Building on his work from the mid-1980s, and now with Mathematica as a tool, Wolfram made a rapid succession of major new discoveries. By the mid-1990s his discoveries led him to develop a fundamentally new conceptual framework, which he then spent the remainder of the 1990s applying not only to new kinds of questions, but also to many existing foundational problems in physics, biology, computer science, mathematics and several other fields.

After more than ten years of highly concentrated work, Wolfram finally described his achievements in his 1200-page book A New Kind of Science. Released on May 14, 2002, the book was widely acclaimed and immediately became a bestseller. Its publication has been seen as initiating a paradigm shift of historic importance in science, with new implications emerging every year.

Building on Mathematica and the ideas of A New Kind of Science, Wolfram embarked on a still more ambitious project: constructing a system that would make as much of the world’s knowledge as possible immediately computable and accessible to everyone. The release of Wolfram|Alpha in May 2009 was widely regarded as a historic step that has defined a new dimension for computation and artificial intelligence — and is now relied on by millions of people every day to compute answers both directly and through intelligent assistants such as Siri.

In 2014 Wolfram made another breakthrough, building on Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha to create the Wolfram Language. Based on the unprecedentedly deep technology stack that Wolfram has developed over the course of three decades, the Wolfram Language introduces the new concept of a knowledge-based language, in which immense knowledge about computation and the world is integrated, and a new level of highly automated programming becomes possible, that both enables more sophisticated applications than ever before, and opens up programming to a much broader range of people.

Wolfram has been involved with education for many years, founding the Wolfram Summer School in 2003, and in 2015 publishing An Elementary Introduction to the Wolfram Language to introduce young students and others to modern computational thinking.

Long interested in history and in people and their trajectories, Wolfram published a collection of essays entitled Idea Makers in 2016 giving his personal perspectives on the lives and ideas of a variety of notable people, and one in 2019 called Adventures of a Computational Explorer about his own trajectory and intellectual adventures.

Wolfram has been president and CEO of Wolfram Research since its founding in 1987. In addition to his corporate leadership, Wolfram is deeply involved in the development of the company’s technology, personally overseeing the functional design of the company’s core products on a daily basis, and constantly introducing new ideas and directions.

Wolfram is a sought-after advisor, mentor and speaker in corporate, entrepreneurial and educational settings. He and his wife have four children and live in Concord, Massachusetts.

Worksheet for this episode can be found here.



Professor Brian Keating

Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor at UC San Diego. Host of The INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE Podcast Authored: Losing the Nobel Prize & Think like a Nobel Prize Winner