Silicon Insider: Sweet Music From a Simple Theory

Want to see and hear something very cool? Check out this Web site:

Pick a style of music and press the button. If you want, mess with the pitch or the choice of instruments or the time signature. Interesting, isn't it? The music is amazingly complex, not the kind of stuff you would hear from a standard music generator. There is a randomness here, but at the same time, a structure -- listen to the melodies emerge in the classical music, the riffs in the rock 'n' roll -- the kind of music that suggests an intelligence has had a hand in the composition.

And yet, if you read the accompanying explanation, you'll discover that all the music you are hearing -- and you can generate literally billions of tunes, enough to fill a lifetime of continuous listening -- is being generated automatically (literally) by a computer using a handful of simple rules.

How is that possible? Well, therein lies a tale …

A Boy Genius's Background

You may remember the name Stephen Wolfram. There was a flurry of press coverage about him three years ago when he published his magnum opus, "A New Kind of Science." The book, and the 10 years of secret research it described, was to be Wolfram's equivalent of Isaac Newton's "Principia," a scientific breakthrough so profound that it would turn our established model of the universe on its head, and send generations of young graduates racing off to spin out all of its implications.

"A New Kind of Science" would also, as a side benefit, finally enable Wolfram to answer the question: Why had the most promising young mathematician and physicist of his era -- the kid who had published his first scientific paper at 15, who had dazzled his professors at Oxford and earned his doctorate in theoretical physics from CalTech at 20, and had been, at 21, the youngest-ever MacArthur "Genius" Prize recipient -- suddenly left academia and "sold out" to the corporate world?

Not that Wolfram was a failure in the business world. On the contrary, he was a raging success. He founded Wolfram Research, which packaged his extraordinary software program, "Mathematica," that enabled users to instantly convert any mathematical equation into a geometric image on the computer screen, and vice versa.

Mathematica, one of the most successful educational programs of all time, transformed the teaching of mathematics in schools and built a gigantic cult following. It also made Wolfram very rich. Rich enough, it was assumed, that he had left his academic career far behind and was living the life of a wealthy chief executive officer somewhere in the distant suburbs of Chicago.

But Wolfram had a secret, and by a weird confluence of events, I was the first reporter to discover it.

As it happened, I knew Wolfram. In one of my early incarnations as a PR guy, I directed the introduction of Mathematica. I had never met Wolfram before, and wouldn't see him again for more than a decade. I found him brilliant, eccentric and more than a little difficult to work with. At one point I even sent him off shopping for a suit with a woman of considerable taste -- only to have him show up at the press conference in the same old Birkenstocks and ratty sweater.

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