The Wolfram Physics Project Makes Me Queasy

Stephen Wolfram is…Stephen Wolfram.

Once a wunderkind student of Feynman, Wolfram is now best known for his software, Mathematica, a tool used by everyone from scientists to lazy college students. Almost all of my work is coded in Mathematica, and while it has some flaws (can someone please speed up the linear solver? Maple’s is so much better!) it still tends to be the best tool for the job.

Wolfram is also known for being a very strange person. There’s his tendency to name, or rename, things after himself. (There’s a type of Mathematica file that used to be called “.m”. Now by default they’re “.wl”, “Wolfram Language” files.) There’s his live-streamed meetings. And then there’s his physics.

In 2002, Wolfram wrote a book, “A New Kind of Science”, arguing that computational systems called cellular automata were going to revolutionize science. A few days ago, he released an update: a sprawling website for “The Wolfram Physics Project”. In it, he claims to have found a potential “theory of everything”, unifying general relativity and quantum physics in a cellular automata-like form.

If that gets your crackpot klaxons blaring, yeah, me too. But Wolfram was once a very promising physicist. And he has collaborators this time, who are currently promising physicists. So I should probably give him a fair reading.

On the other hand, his introduction for a technical audience is 448 pages long. I may have more time now due to COVID-19, but I still have a job, and it isn’t reading that.

So I compromised. I didn’t read his 448-page technical introduction. I read his 90-ish page blog post. The post is written for a non-technical audience, so I know it isn’t 100% accurate. But by seeing how someone chooses to promote their work, I can at least get an idea of what they value.

I started out optimistic, or at least trying to be. Wolfram starts with simple mathematical rules, and sees what kinds of structures they create. That’s not an unheard of strategy in theoretical physics, including in my own field. And the specific structures he’s looking at look weirdly familiar, a bit like a generalization of cluster algebras.

Reading along, though, I got more and more uneasy. That unease peaked when I saw him describe how his structures give rise to mass.

Wolfram had already argued that his structures obey special relativity. (For a critique of this claim, see this twitter thread.) He found a way to define energy and momentum in his system, as “fluxes of causal edges”. He picks out a particular “flux of causal edges”, one that corresponds to “just going forward in time”, and defines it as mass. Then he “derives” E=mc^2, saying,

Sometimes in the standard formalism of physics, this relation by now seems more like a definition than something to derive. But in our model, it’s not just a definition, and in fact we can successfully derive it.

In “the standard formalism of physics”, E=mc^2 means “mass is the energy of an object at rest”. It means “mass is the energy of an object just going forward in time”. If the “standard formalism of physics” “just defines” E=mc^2, so does Wolfram.

I haven’t read his technical summary. Maybe this isn’t really how his “derivation” works, maybe it’s just how he decided to summarize it. But it’s a pretty misleading summary, one that gives the reader entirely the wrong idea about some rather basic physics. It worries me, because both as a physicist and a blogger, he really should know better. I’m left wondering whether he meant to mislead, or whether instead he’s misleading himself.

That feeling kept recurring as I kept reading. There was nothing else as extreme as that passage, but a lot of pieces that felt like they were making a big deal about the wrong things, and ignoring what a physicist would find the most important questions.

I was tempted to get snarkier in this post, to throw in a reference to Lewis’s trilemma or some variant of the old quip that “what is new is not good; and what is good is not new”. For now, I’ll just say that I probably shouldn’t have read a 90 page pop physics treatise before lunch, and end the post with that.

13 thoughts on “The Wolfram Physics Project Makes Me Queasy

  1. Anonymous Chicken

    There is a pernicious effect here that Wolfram is taking advantage of. All physics faculty are too busy to write a thorough response, and too smart to just go out and call it the bullshit it is. They know that Wolfram has enormous popular reach in his media blitz and a compelling narrative to the layperson, so their responses will be at best ignored, and at worst invite torrents of abuse. Even popular Twitter physicists like Sean Carroll or John Baez just declined to comment. You’re a reasonable person, so you too have essentially declined to say anything too strong. And so, month after month, yet another self-aggrandizing crackpot succeeds in drawing far more attention to himself than all the thousands of legitimate physicists.

    As a theoretical physics graduate student, I can also easily tell it’s bullshit (and so can all the other graduate students I know!). Even the papers he has submitted to journals about this are completely empty — a typical section of the papers begins with several trivial definitions involving graphs, then some incredibly vague text that doesn’t even use the few definitions there are, followed by a triumphant declaration that he has derived, e.g. the Einstein field equations. But when I pointed this out online, I was shouted down by people who said that Wolfram had better credentials than me. That’s what happens when senior people are “reasonable” and stay silent.

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    1. 4gravitons Post author

      Part of why I’m avoiding saying anything too harsh is a “brand” thing. That’s something other bloggers can tackle (I genuinely hope Sabine Hossenfelder chooses to cover this, that will be an interesting post.) The other part is that unlike you, I haven’t even read the journal papers.

      I get that it’s irritating when a crackpot gets mainstream attention. I don’t know who’s shouting you down on this kind of thing, Wolfram may have a lot of fanboys but in my experience there are way more people making fun of him. I believe you there are communities being taken in by it, but maybe you can take comfort in that, even when a crackpot gets more attention than the real physicists, it doesn’t change what the real physicists work on. Physics still gets done.

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    2. Anonymous Rooster

      You are a “physics graduate student”. He earned his PhD in physics at the age of 20, a long long time ago; so if your goal was to “pull rank”, you are right; he has much better credentials than you. That doesn’t automatically mean that he’s right and you’re wrong, but it does mean that you’ll need something more than a mostly-vacuous comment about how “obviously wrong he is” to challenge his work of decades. And I’d like to see you do something as meaningful as he is, instead of this pretty pathetic knee-jerk conservative reaction to a new model that will reinvigorate physics (I’m not saying the model is correct; but at least it’s fresh, conceivable and a radically different way of viewing physics; something which was sorely needed in a field that has been in a dead end and stagnant for way too long).

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      1. 4gravitons Post author

        I’m letting this through, but it’s toeing the line, no personal insults here please.

        More generally, the idea that Anonymous Chicken is “pulling rank” here is absurd. He’s complaining about being bullied online for being frank about his impressions of Wolfram’s model, and you certainly aren’t helping dispel that complaint.

        (Anonymous Chicken, if you’re worried your bullies are sockpuppets or the like, let me know if you know any of their URLs and I can compare with this guy.)

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        1. Anonymous Rooster

          The closest thing to an insult in my comment was the word “pathetic”, but that’s just my assessment of Anonymous Chicken’s reaction; not intended as an insult. The rest was just pure observation. This is just my tone, and me being straightforward; I don’t intend to insult neither him nor you.

          He said he was a “theoretical physics graduate student” and that he could tell it was bullshit. Obviously he mentioned the fact to highlight his opinion and give it importance; you’d rather trust a physics student about physics than a janitor about physics. But since the creator of the model (Stephen Wolfram) already has a doctorate in physics and probably since long before Anonymous Chicken was even born, the fact that he’s a graduate physics student is irrelevant; or, at worst, it devalues his opinion if you want to play the credentials/fallacy-from-authority game.

          So to reiterate; discredit his (Wolfram’s) theory, disprove it, criticize it, whatever. I came across this article precisely because I was looking for actual criticism against his theory and all I can find is vague, knee-jerk, weak-sauce reactionary stuff like his comment (no offense). “Oh his paper doesn’t make sense to me; I don’t understand the fact that he doesn’t follow a specific paper-writing convention that I’m used to and therefore he’s a hack and his model has automatically zero merit to it, also he uses his own name a lot”. That’s not an argument against the theory, at most it’s an argument against his “paper-writing skills” or supposed narcissism.

          Aside from a comment at https://writings.stephenwolfram.com/2020/04/finally-we-may-have-a-path-to-the-fundamental-theory-of-physics-and-its-beautiful (an article which you should read, if you haven’t, assuming you want a basic understanding of what Wolfram is on about; because nobody said you have to read an almost 500-page-long book to get some basic understanding and formulate a first opinion on it), aside from a comment there and the one I left here, I haven’t written anything else anywhere, internet or otherwise, about this topic. The comment about comparing my IP was pretty cringeworthy and unnecessarily antagonistic, perhaps you’re bullying me now… I’m neither bullying “Anonymous Chicken” (my god the thin-skinnedness…), nor am I a “sockpuppet”; whatever that means. It may boggle your mind, but opinions are usually shared amongst people; it’s hard to find a topic where anybody has a completely original opinion on a subject. And all I’ve said is that Anonymous Chicken’s criticism is weak; I’m really interested in finding actual criticism that actually applies. If he figures that “senior people don’t bother”, then maybe he should. Implying he’s got a good argument against it but not providing it is just blowing out smoke, however.

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          1. 4gravitons Post author

            Part of what’s going on here is a culture difference. When Anonymous Chicken says he’s a grad student, he’s not claiming status: he’s saying that even he, who doesn’t have a PhD yet, can tell there’s nothing there. Remember, this conversation here was between physicists, he was merely saying he has the basic expertise we both share.

            To clarify why I was worried about sockpuppets/bullying: it’s weird that, between my comments and Manny’s, you latched on to Anonymous Chicken’s. Not the person who did say something at least a bit substantive (which you apparently didn’t read, since you didn’t know whether I had read the piece I explicitly based it on), not the person who was more insulting, but the person who spent most of their comment complaining that they felt alone. The whole “picking a username to mirror his” is also weird. Based on that initial impression, it seemed possible that one or a few people were harassing him across multiple platforms, changing usernames to look like more people.

            But sure, let’s assume you’re honest, and that you picked out Anonymous Chicken purely because he read the papers and the rest of us haven’t yet. As I mention in my post, there isn’t enough in the popular treatment you linked to judge the actual details of Wolfram’s proposal. So sure, I’d like to hear something specific from Anonymous Chicken as well, if he’s still watching this space. (You should also check out Will Kinney’s criticism, that I linked in my post.)

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            1. Anonymous Rooster

              I did read your article, only I read like 90% of it and saw it was not what I was looking for (coincidentally, one of the paragraphs I missed was the one where you explicitly mentioned you had read the article I just shared). So I went to the comments. And although you didn’t say much in the article. Anonymous Chicken said even less; with more frustration and even with at tint of fallacy from authority (although it’s true, maybe it’s “even me, a lowly student, can tell it’s bullshit”). So that’s why I wrote the comment directed at him.

              I chose “Anonymous Rooster” because I didn’t know what throwaway nickname to use, so I based it upon his. And since his is also likely made up on the spot for this purpose, it’d be unlikely in any case that I were some past “bully” of his who had somehow tracked him down to “harass” him. Although the “harassment” here is nothing but “please give a substantial criticism, I’d be very grateful”; so none at all.

              All that’s left here is for Anonymous Chicken to reply with something, if ever. After reading your comment I did check Will Kinney’s criticism, and I like that more than what I’ve seen until now; he has written stuff that at least makes you think. But even then, most of it is knee-jerk bullshit and he lays on the “crackpot” insults too thick. He says “I don’t know how quantum mechanics could ever be derived from a few simple definite rules” right after confessing he has only read until the point where Wolfram “claims to reproduce Einstein’s equations”. He’s being reactionary, biased, and the criticism is superficial and most of it based on his own misunderstanding of the theory, or on the belief that Wolfram should’ve come up with a fully realized theory to the 100% with all the math etc. on the first try and that since he hasn’t, then the whole model is bullshit and he’s a hack. Wolfram’s model is basic and it presents a framework for further study, that’s the whole point of the “physics project”; and this is if anything the first treatise (I know it’s not his first attempt, but it’s the first version of the model that has parallels to most of physics’ “big topics”). Again, I don’t know if the model is right or wrong; but what IS wrong is to immediately disregard such a beautiful and comprehensive theory, which opens up a new avenue in good-old stagnant physics, on an ad hominem or the-paper-is-not-written-as-I’d-like-it-to-be basis.

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              1. 4gravitons Post author

                Two things:

                First: I suspect Kinney’s dismissiveness and “crackpot” insults come from a similar place to the tone you took with Anonymous Chicken: if you think someone is throwing status around to cover for vague bullshit, you don’t end up with a lot of patience for them.

                Second: Have you read the technical paper?

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                1. Anonymous Rooster

                  About “first”, I don’t think Wolfram is doing that and I didn’t give the presentation I read any more importance than what I was seeing in front of me; it’s what I was reading that impressed me. Not Wolfram nor his credentials – more like the other way around, the impressiveness of his model made me look up who he was (I knew he was the head of Wolfram Alpha, but little beyond that).

                  About “second”, if you mean the almost-500-page-long “technical presentation”, then no; and I don’t know why you’re asking me that.

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                  1. 4gravitons Post author

                    Thanks, both answers give me a clearer idea of where you’re coming from here.

                    There’s a line I’ve heard about philosophy: the reason to study philosophy is that it immunizes you to philosophers. If you haven’t read much philosophy, you can read one grand worldview and think it’s totally compelling. With more background, you get more skeptical: you know the standard objections, how one philosophy argues against another’s claims. Even without the full details, you can anticipate what the flaws are going to be.

                    When you read Wolfram’s popular treatment, it looks impressive. When physicists read the same thing, we aren’t impressed.

                    Partly, that’s because it’s similar to other physics popularization pieces. The things that impress you about it, the impression of comprehensiveness and originality, are pretty typical of how physicists present that kind of thing to the public. It’s not even obvious (just from reading that piece) that the scientific content is novel: there’s a field, called entropic gravity, where people get GR from simple elements obeying simple rules.

                    Partly, that’s because it’s similar to pieces written by actual crackpots. The emphasis on deriving different elements of what every physicist knows are the same thing (the statements about relativity I mention in my post, the separate points about deriving vacuum GR and GR with matter) don’t guarantee Wolfram is a crackpot…but most people who present things in that way are.

                    So that’s why we aren’t optimistic. “Not optimistic” isn’t the same as “know he’s wrong”. Most of us haven’t read the technical piece, we don’t know he’s wrong. But there are only so many 500 page chunks of physics we can read in a week, and we tend to prioritize ones that look like they’re going somewhere.

                    That said, the two smaller papers are more manageable, and at least based on how they’re described sound self-contained. If I can get some time, I might try reading the GR one and seeing what it’s up to. I was hoping one of the other bloggers would get to it (Sean Carroll in particular has worked on entropic gravity and knows the pitfalls of the field well.) But if nobody does then I probably should.

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                    1. Anonymous Rooster

                      Thanks for that reply, it also helps me see where you’re coming from. And although it’s easy for me to say and harder to do, I would celebrate any further criticism or “debunking” of this theory you may do in the future.

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  2. Manny

    On a separate note, the incredibly high number or I/me/myself gives the impression of an arrogant uber-self-confident brat. You never see any credit to his collaborators/colleagues. He is undeniably clever, but has built a personality cult within his company that is frankly off-putting..

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