Monday, February 5, 2018

Book Review: 'Idea Makers' by Stephen Wolfram

British author Stephen Wolfram is a unique blend of scientist and philosopher and is highly regarded for his Wolfram Language: the knowledge-based computer language that powers Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha. He is credited with countless inventions and discoveries, and at the same time he has committed to the education of several generations of students. Born in London and educated at Eton, Oxford and Caltech, he earned his PhD in physics in 1979 at the age of 20! Following a distinguished academic career, he founded Wolfram Research in 1987 and as CEO has built it into one of the world’s most respected and innovative software companies, whose products are relied on by millions of people around the world.

IDEA MAKERS is an intensely interesting and brilliant collection of essays in this Stephen explores and examines the lives of mathematicians and scientists whose very presence on the globe and ideas they placed before us have changed history – if not in explosively public ways but in the influence of their minds on the development and progression of our scope of knowledge about the universe and all matters scientific.

In his preface Stephen states, ‘I’ve spent most of my life working hard to build the future with science and technology. But two of my other great interests are history and people. This book is a collection of essays I’ve written that indulge those interests. All of them are in the form of personal perspectives on people—describing from my point of view the stories of their lives and of the ideas they created. I’ve written different essays for different reasons: sometimes to commemorate a historical anniversary, sometimes because of a current event, and sometimes—unfortunately—because someone just died. The people I’ve written about span three centuries in time—and range from the very famous to the little-known. All of them had interests that intersect in some way or another with my own. But it’s ended up a rather eclectic list—that’s given me the opportunity to explore a wide range of very different lives and ideas….I’ve become progressively more interested in history—and in what it can teach us about the pattern of how things work. And I’ve learned that decoding the actual facts and path of history—like so many other areas—is a fascinating intellectual process.’

Some essays are based on conversations and friendships – such as with Richard Feynman (a former neighbor of this reader) and ring true to the personalities as well as the accomplishments. Other essays are based on considerable depth of research. The notables examined are Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, George Boole, Ada Lovelace, Gottfried Leibniz, Benoit Mandelbrot, Steve Jobs, Marvin Minsky, Russell Towle, Bertrand Russell, Alfred Whitehead, Richard Crandall, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and Solomon Golomb – a veritable cornucopia of the great minds that have shaped our now. Each essay rings with insight and yet includes the pleasure of Stephen’s unique, dry and irreverent wit. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, July 16

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.