Then, one day in 2001, I bumped into a publisher friend, a neighbor since my childhood, who casually informed me that he was going to publish Wolfram's new book. He told me the title. "Ambitious, huh?" he asked. I figure it's either going to change the world or make him a laughingstock.
I was intrigued. And, being at the time the editor of the world's largest circulation technology business magazine, I was actually in the position to do something about it (over the concerns of most of my staff). I contacted Wolfram -- not an easy task -- and based upon our past connection, got him to agree to an interview.
And that in turn led to one of the weirdest experiences of my professional career. I was picked up from my hotel in downtown Chicago at 8 p.m. by a publicist from Wolfram Research, then driven on a circuitous route -- during which time she twice pretended to be lost -- that finally delivered me, at 11 p.m., somewhere in the woods in Illinois, to a large, brightly lit house. And there, in the doorway, was Stephen Wolfram.
While the publicist, and Wolfram's family, slept downstairs, Stephen and I spent five hours discussing his work. It seemed that he had spent almost a decade running his company by day, doing his research by night, developing what he believed was a fundamentally new way of looking at reality. It was based upon a field he had help invent: cellular automata. This is the theory that, using very simple items -- say, black and white tiles -- and a handful of equally simple rules, you can create structures of amazing complexity.
What Wolfram said that he had discovered, thanks to the power of the computer, was that if you ran these rules a million, or a billion, times, very strange things began to happen. Not always -- usually the design got real boring and predictable real fast. But every once in a while, for example with a rule he named "# 30," all sorts of weird and interesting randomness began to pop up in all that order.
To illustrate his theory, consider this paraphrased example:
Imagine you are standing on the 50-yard line of a football stadium, and your job is to tile the field with 1-inch-square bathroom floor tiles, half of them black, the other half white.
By the time you cover the insignia at the center of the field, you've only used 10,000 tiles. You realize this boring job is going to take years. So, to kill time, you make up some simple rules -- such as white tiles can line up to make an "L" shape but not a "T." You come up with a half dozen of these rules, and because they amuse you, you stick with them.
Ten years pass. Suddenly, you're done. Four billion tiles. You can't believe it's all finished. Since you've spent all of those years on your knees on the tiles, you have no idea what the whole thing looks like. So you climb to the top of the dome and look down, expecting to see something like sand on a beach.
Instead, you see a flower. A giant flower so perfect that it looks like a black and white photograph. So perfect that it seems alive.
This column is too small a space to go any further into the scientific, even theological implications of Wolfram's theory, except to say that it suggested an underlying structure to the universe that none of us knew was there.