Friday 30 August 2013

Wolfram alpha male

Stephen Wolfram, whose 54th birthday it was yesterday, has been twice as reproductively successful as the average man by having four children and good luck to them all. (I had to put that in or the witty title didn't mean a lot.) He has also been phenomenally successful as a computational mathematician.  Indeed, although I forgot it was his birthday yesterday, I used his knowledge-engine WolframAlpha to compute some distances and population densities.  Now WA is a pretty cool idea, nobody since the world began has ever wanted to know the distance between Cottonwood Falls and St Kilda, so it's not written down anywhere, but Wolfram's tool will calculate it for you. 

I use WA all the time and it comes up with something useful about 50% of the time.  Partly this is to do with not getting the syntax correct so that WolframAlpha can understand me, but it is partly to do with its assumption that people much less smart than Stephen are users: it will guess what you're trying to articulate.  So here's an example. I wanted to know what the atmospheric pressure was 200m down at the bottom of Lake Nyos.  It's work now as I'm prepping my Environmental Chemistry classes.  But WolframAlpha persisted in giving me the atmospheric pressure 200m up.  So I went off and Binged the answer from a diving website.  It wasn't until this morning that I twigged (duh!) you can calculate it from first principles so it should be ideal grist for the WolframAlpha mill.  1 atmosphere = 760 mm Mercury (Hg).  The density of Hg (densities are always compared to that of water) is 13.534.  So 0.760m * 13.534 = 10.2m of water is equal to 1 atm.  Which makes a rather inconveniently tall barometer, so that's why Torricelli used Mercury. The rule of neoprene thumb ?RNT? in the depths is that every 10m the pressure increases by 1 atm.

You can podcast a middle-aged Stephen giving a 2010 TED talk about Mathematica and WolframAlpha, to get the measure of him now: lots of arm waving (physical not metaphorical). Sometimes it is more expressive to wedge your hands firmly in your pockets rather than windmilling every phrase - lecturers, including Bob, please note.  The young Stephen was similarly restless.  He dropped out of school early, dropped out of Oxford University without taking a degree and only knuckled down to formal quals by getting his PhD from Cal Tech - at the age of 20!  The next year 1981 he was the youngest person to win one of the first MacArthur 'Genius' Fellowships for "showing exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work".  That was $500,000 but it's not about the money, is it?  Another recipient was Barbara McClintock, at 79 probably the oldest awardee that year.  You can get a feel for the restless energy - a sort of titanium butterfly - and boundless curiosity of the man in a Wired interview by Steven Levy . . . without having to read his monumental 1200 page A New Kind of Science. That book is truly a theory of life, the universe and everything mostly turning on the observation that extraordinary complexity can be generated from tweaking some very simple rules - as I recently suggested for the growth of haricots.

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