Number Eleven: 10 points for beginning the description of your theory by saying how long you have been working on it.
April 15, 2007 12:37 PM   Subscribe

I picked up Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science, but the introduction alone puts Wolfram high up on the crackpot index. Reccommend some other introductions to cellular automata.
posted by tylermoody to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The Computational Beauty of Nature all the way. Plus you get accessible introductions to fractals and genetic algorithms!
posted by aparrish at 12:45 PM on April 15, 2007

I don't know of any comprehensive books on the topic. It's usually the subject of little papers and columns. Conway's Game of Life is the classic introduction.

The book does seem kind of crackpotty, but then again, so do strings/superstrings/M-theory, loop quantum gravity, and whatnot. There's actual physics PhDs working on a sort of grid-based physics that aren't too far off from Wolfram's ideas.

What are you wanting to do with cellular automata, anyway?
posted by adipocere at 12:48 PM on April 15, 2007

I don't think Wolfram is that crackpotty, deep down. The way he expresses himself can be annoying but he right at the beginning of a theory, so he has an excuse for waving his hands now and then.
posted by unSane at 12:52 PM on April 15, 2007

I can't really peg Wolfram as crackpot or merely immodest enthusiast, but the actual content of A New Kind of Science was quiet good and covered a lot of ground on cellular automata. Skim past the paragraphs that explain that this is going to change the whole entire world of science Real Soon Now and you'll find there's an awful lot of good book there.

Seconding Conway, and whatever lit you can find relating to Game of Life.
posted by cortex at 12:54 PM on April 15, 2007

Response by poster: I am a second-semester bioengineering student. I have an easy load right now, and I'm trying to get ahead a bit and get to the interesting material that's farther into the curriculum. I can find reading on most of it (nonlinear mathematics, complex systems, etc) but during a presentation, one of the professors showed some CA animations that fascinated me. I'd like to know what's going on behind the pretty pictures and how to make some of my own.
posted by tylermoody at 12:58 PM on April 15, 2007

In that case, you'll have to learn some programming. Don't worry, CA is not very hard to program, at all! I did some of my first CA before puberty, so it isn't that difficult.
posted by adipocere at 1:12 PM on April 15, 2007

This page contains a list of links to resources about Life and other CA's.

As adipocere says, programming CAs is easy. Thats part of the point. They're a bunch of simple rules which give rise to complex behavior. That link above is actually from the MCell site, a CA simulator which contains libraries and libraries of CAs.
posted by vacapinta at 1:53 PM on April 15, 2007

You'll want to play with Golly. It uses memoization and quadtrees to simulate 2d automata Really Really FastĀ®. Runs on Mac. Open source. Makes coffee.
posted by you at 1:54 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

The criticism I've heard of Wolfram is that he too easily confuses models of reality with reality itself. I haven't read that book, though.

(20 points for comparing yourself with Tesla or Einstein.)
posted by cmiller at 8:01 PM on April 15, 2007

Wolfram's math is sound.

There are 1190 or so pages that are worth the read and are solid reasoning (and super-fun art).

Not at all like Drexler's breathless Engines of Creation, which is much more speculative and overt hype.
posted by sourwookie at 8:33 PM on April 15, 2007

Here is the always interesting Cosma Shalizi's intro to cellular automata; at the end there's a long reading list, including my colleague David Griffeath's Primordial Soup Kitchen.
posted by escabeche at 9:09 PM on April 15, 2007

the actual content of A New Kind of Science was quiet good and covered a lot of ground on cellular automata. Skim past the paragraphs that explain that this is going to change the whole entire world of science Real Soon Now and you'll find there's an awful lot of good book there.

Way seconding this. Reading someone like Richard Dawkins will spoil you for someone like Stephen Wolfram, because Dawkins is capable of introducing his topics without sounding like a nut. Nevertheless, if you get into it, Wolfram's book is absolutely fascinating in a way that will have you feeling like a crackpot yourself in no time.

Seriously, worth the read, absolutely.
posted by davejay at 10:01 PM on April 15, 2007

Wolfram is mostly an egotist, and not really a crackpot, although that depends on who you ask. The work is solid, but that doesn't mean it's true, and it's certainly not as unique as he acts like it is. Konrand Zuse was doing more or less the same thing in the 60s, when he wrote a book that's been translated as Calculating Space.
posted by Arturus at 10:57 PM on April 15, 2007

ANKoS struck me as the result of a magnificent obsession, but solid. I don't know of any published author apart from Wolfram who is actually doing the grunt work of trawling simple algorithms to find complex results; the point is, if you can get over being annoyed by how often he says "the point is" after waffling for half a page, there's a hell of a lot of good stuff in it, the illustrations are absolutely gorgeous and the accompanying expositions are clear and understandable.

I think you're being harsh with the crackpot assessment. People like Gene Ray do not create products like Mathematica.
posted by flabdablet at 11:47 PM on April 15, 2007

Okay, so now I know of at least one :-)
posted by flabdablet at 12:06 AM on April 16, 2007

Wolfram is a crackpot, but he's also very very smart. You can learn a lot from his book. The saddest thing about his crackpottery is that his book lacks any bibliography. It's like celullar automata sprang full-borne from his head with no precedent.

Cosma's reading list is good. If you're really wanting to dig depe, the SFI working papers collection has some very good stuff in it. I'd start by looking for Melanie Mitchell's postdocs' papers.
posted by Nelson at 12:43 AM on April 16, 2007

In particular, Cosma Shalizi is comprehensively unimpressed by Wolfram's work.

I'm still glad I own a copy.
posted by flabdablet at 8:51 AM on April 16, 2007

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