Stephan Wolfram is a brilliant theoretical physicist, and something of a mathematical genius. He is also very much a real-life change-the-world kind of guy as well, far from the cloisters of academic research.
He has already done it twice; first with his software product Mathematica that is in use in universities and private corporations all over the world and then, more recently, with the successful Wolfram Alpha scientific search engine.
Now he wants to do it a third time, by commercializing the programming language that underlies both products, which he calls simply the Wolfram Language. It even powers an HTML5 compliant web version of Mathematica.
Wolfram, who today is 54, was born in England to two talented German Jewish refugees who fled there in the nineteen thirties. His father Hugo Wolfram was both a textile manufacturer and a novelist. His mother Sybil was a Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University.
After going to school at Eton he left to go to St. Johns College Oxford at the tender age of just 17, but quit because he found the lectures there “awful”. Something of a mathematics prodigy, his early departure from Oxford did not hinder him from then obtaining a PhD in particle physics from Caltec by the time he was 20. Professor Richard Feynman was one of his thesis examiners.
Wolfram joined the Caltech faculty upon on obtaining his PhD where he continued to pursue his interests in particle physics. Some of his work there is still used in experimental physics. After also developing there a computer algebra system SMP, or symbolic manipulation program, the intellectual property rights to which he disputed with the university, he left Caltec in 1983 for the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton where he continued his researches in theoretical physics.
Three years later he moved to the University of Illinois where he began to develop Mathematica which was released to the world in 1988 when he left academia to finally pursue a business career promoting the new software programme. He did so within a new corporate vehicle Wolfram Research, which he had established for that purpose in 1987.
During the nineties Stephen Wolfram wrote a major work entitled A New Kind of Science, in which he claimed that nature is fundamentally digital and that the complex systems found within it all can arise from precursor “programmes” that are likely each relatively simple. The book was published in 2002.
In March 2009 he released Wolfram Alpha a natural language based processing search engine that algorithmically tries to intuit answers to even complex relational enquiries. Many people today regard it highly, though this humble writer has not managed to use it productively yet. Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Bing both use Wolfram Alpha as a resource for some of their search processing to do with basic factual lines of questioning.
Stephen Wolfram became a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society in 2012. He is also married to a mathematician and they have four children. They live in Concord Massachusetts.
The new Wolfram Language product will undoubtedly meld some of the attributes of its predecessors as it goes out into the real world. Wolfram Research has been a profitable business for the last twenty five years, based on the popularity of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha. By broadening the company’s appeal issuing the development tools to the commercial marketplace that are under the hood of both, he could be on to a winner here.