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The Life and Work of Stephen Wolfram

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Stephen Wolfram is a famous physicist, scientist, inventor, author, and business leader. He is the creator of Mathematica, the author of A New Kind of Science, the creator of Wolfram|Alpha, and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. His career has been characterized by a sequence of unique and important achievements (About Stephen Wolfram, 2010).

He was born in London in August 29, 1959. His father, Hugo Wolfram is a novelist while his mother, Sybil Wolfram was an Oxford professor of Philosophy. He has one younger brother, Conrad Wolfram. He is married to a mathematician and has three children. At a very young age, he was named a young Einstein. At 13, he earned a scholarship at the Eton College. At 14, he wrote his first book on particle physics (Stephen Wolfram, 2010). At 15, he published his first scientific paper. At 17, the scientific journal Nuclear Physics published a paper he'd written. At 18, he wrote a widely-acclaimed paper on heavy quark production. And at 20, he received his PhD in theoretical particle physics at California Institute of Technology. His early works were mainly concentrated on high-energy physics, quantum field theory, and cosmology, and included several now-classic results (About Stephen Wolfram, 2010).

He started to use computers in the year 1973. He became one of the pioneers in the emerging field of scientific computing. He started the construction of the first modern computer algebra system, Symbolic Manipulation Program (SMP) in the year 1979. SMP is basically the version zero of today’s popular Mathematica. It was distributed commercially in 1981.Also in 1981, he was the youngest recipient of a MacArthur Prize Fellowship for his early works in physics and scientific computing. In his teenage years, he was fascinated by the cellular automata theories. He thought Life-like cellular automata could be adapted to explain complex behavior in the physical world (Stephen Wolfram, 2010). At only 21 years old, he was already teaching in the California Institute of Technology, researching and reviving the interest for cellular automata. Because of some intellectual ownership issues with Caltech, he decided to leave the university and go to Princeton (Stephen Wolfram, 2010).

In the mid-1980’s, he continued studying complex systems and discovered a number of fundamental connections between computation and nature, and invented such concepts as computational irreducibility. His works became important and applicable in many wide range applications. He used his ideas to produce a new randomness generation system and to develop a new approach to computational fluid dynamics (About Stephen Wolfram, 2010). After his successful career in the academe, he pursued the Wolfram Research, Inc. He began developing Mathematica in 1986. In 1988, the first version of Mathematica was released and it was recognized as the most advance computing tool on that time (About Stephen Wolfram, 2010). He became a pioneer and leader of the world’s software industry and was considered as one of the most excellent in terms of technology and business. In the mid-1990’s, he worked on a new fundamental conceptual framework that was applied to different new scientific problems but also existing problems in mathematics, physics, and other sciences. After more than a decade of research and study, he summarized all his achievements and success in the book, A New Kind of Science. It was released on 2002 and it basically materialized Wolfram’s works and its historical importance in the scientific community (About Stephen Wolfram, 2010).

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Wolfram has been also the founder, president, and CEO of the Wolfram Research Inc. since 1987. Despite of the fact that he is the boss, he still is the one who manages and develops new technological researches of the company. He continues to be the one responsible for inspecting and reviewing all the aspects of the functional design of the core of the Mathematica software. He dedicated his life to research and education that is why he continues to be ambitious in research and always eager to find and discover something new. From Mathematica, A New Kind of Science, and the success of Wolfram Research, he invented the Wolfram|Alpha in 2009. It is a long term project that is designed to answer anything in a computational method or idea (About Stephen Wolfram, 2010). This is the first computational knowledge engine to be launched.

Wolfram|Alpha is basically an answer search engine that computes for the answer. It was recognized as the invention that could change the world forever. Furthermore, it is a web software that was designed specifically to understand questions and give specific, computed answers that the web has never seen before. It was launched at Harvard University and it is a huge step towards systems and machines that understand and respond to ordinary language as same as a person (Johnson, 2009).

Basically, the web software is designed as a search engine. The users submit their queries such as words, phrases or questions thru a text box. The job of the Wolfram|Alpha is to compute the answers and provide the answers and some other relevant information about the query using a core knowledge base of curated, structured data. It differs from the traditional, normal search engines that produce an index of many different relevant answers to the queries of the user. It is rooted and based on Mathematica, which is a complete functional-programming package which encompasses computer algebra, symbolic and numerical computation, visualization, and statistics capabilities. Therefore, using Mathematica as a background data processing system, the web software is suited to answering mathematical and other computational problems and questions. The answers are very human-understandable.

There are many capabilities of the Wolfram|Alpha. It can answer non-specific queries such as “mortgage 6%, 25 year, $140000”, the answers would be a mixture of repayment rates and graphs that represent capital vs. interest over time. Another example would be “boiling point of water at 6 atm”, the displayed answers would be a phase diagram alongside the result of 432.6 Kelvins. It can also compute for complex mathematical systems such as computing the limits “lim(x->0) x/sin x”, the displayed answer would be 1, a plot, and the series expansion. Furthermore, the button "show steps" provides a possible derivation of the result using L'Hôpital's rule.

One of the most important technological advances that the Wolfram|Alpha gave is to answering increasingly complex, natural-language fact-based questions. Examples of these questions are: “How old was Queen Elizabeth II in 1974?”, “What is the forty-eighth smallest country by GDP per capita?” and "What is the meaning of life?”. The answers would be computational answers – numbers. In the question "What is the meaning of life?", the displayed answer would be 42 which is attributed to a novel named The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the novel, a supercomputer was asked with the same question and the answer was 42. There are many other different questions that the web software can answer. The site database consists of many different sites that offer hundreds of datasets, including current and historical weather, drug data, star charts, currency conversion, and many others. The data sets that are used were accumulated for the past 2 years and the range of questions will expand along with the expansion of its databases (Ozimek, 2009). The Wolfram|Alpha is therefore a very convenient and reliable web search engine that provides accurate answers to questions.

Computer experts suggested that Wolfram|Alpha is a very important technological invention today. It could be an important part of the internet like Google, and it is really impressive (Spivack, cited in Johnson, 2009). An innovation that takes one step closer to man’s comfort and knowledge is Wolfram|Alpha. It is the most important technological innovation in the 21st century internet community.

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