Stephen Wolfram: the genius who wants to dethrone Google

Stephen Wolfram is considered by many to be the most revolutionary scientific theorist alive. Now he wants to take on Google with a radical new search engine.

Stephen Wolfram is, by his own (and a few other people's) reckoning, the most revolutionary scientific theorist alive: the natural heir to Newton, Darwin and Einstein. But this British-born former child prodigy also has a fiercely competitive business brain. Hence the hype raging in the blogosphere about the imminent launch of Wolfram Alpha, a radical new search engine that, says its inventor, will make Google goggle.

Alpha is the result of a lifetime of heavy thinking (see below). But its commercial selling point is simple, says The Boston Globe. Ask Google, "What was The Beatles' biggest hit?" and you get 2.3 million web pages written by Beatles' fans. Ask Alpha, and it will respond: "Hey Jude." So some believe that Alpha could transform the way we use the internet. True or not, Wolfram has stirred up a hornets' nest in the world of geeks. Debates about the viability of the technology are frequently spiced with catty attacks about his over-weaning ego. "I admire Steve enormously," a colleague once remarked, "but he has a very robust sense of self-esteem."

Controversy is nothing new to Wolfram, 50, who has combined "fierce independence with a chronically low opinion of the establishment" ever since childhood, says Newsweek. Born in London, the son of a novelist father and an academic philosopher mother, he won a scholarship to Eton at the age of 12 but left early (bored), having spent most of his time "figuring out the locations on the fabled playing fields where a soccer ball was least likely to find him".

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Wolfram later attended St John's College Oxford, only to quit early again. Wolfram's "untameable mind" was finally harnessed in America, where, aged 20, he obtained a PhD in physics at the California Institute of Technology. Now a wunderkind, he was invited to join the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS): the idyllic Princeton sanctuary for geniuses, whose woodlands and rolling acres have cosseted some of the world's most celebrated brains, including Einstein.

True to form, after three years at the IAS Wolfram got into an academic fight and quit in a huff. By the mid-1980s he had been seduced by the first stirrings of the Californian computer industry. In 1987, with seed money from a $128,000 "genius grant", he launched Mathematica a sophisticated calculator that, at the time, was predicted to become a software blockbuster. It won critical acclaim, but failed to live up to commercial expectations, possibly because Wolfram now married with children had retreated back into his head. In 1991, he "unplugged from the world", says BusinessWeek, spending the next ten years working on his great opus, A New Kind of Science. Typically, he'd work from 10pm to sun-up, get a few hours kip, deal with a few company calls and emails, and start work again.

The massive book was hailed as the work of an extraordinary mind. But Wolfram's ideas never hit the mainstream. Perhaps because he is years ahead of his time, says BusinessWeek. Yet this impatient, ambitious, vainglorious thinker craves wider recognition. He will be throwing everything into his tilt against Google.

What is Stephen Wolfram's scientific theory?

As a young man, rushing through the most stellar academic institutions in the world, Stephen Wolfram was astonished at "how little they added to the scientific knowledge that he'd gather on his own", says Newsweek. So just how intelligent is he? Some of America's best minds put him up there with the greats. Gordon Bell, the septuagenarian technologist known as the "Frank Lloyd Wright of computers", reckons Wolfram is a "super, super, super genius", says The New Yorker, "probably smarter" than Stephen Hawking. But equally eminent scientists notably distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson have dismissed Wolfram's work as "worthless".

The theory laid out in A New Kind of Science can be seen as "the revenge of the nerds on the hubris of the astrophysicists", says The Sunday Times. Wolfram believes much of the universe can be understood in terms of simple programs far simpler than those run by computers rather than via traditional mathematical equations. "The Pythagoreans had this idea all is number," he told The Daily Telegraph. "This was a pretty good idea; it spawned mathematics. My comparable idea is that all is computation." Wolfram thinks the theory "will revolutionise science" everything from the theory of evolution, to the nature of space and time. Eventually, he says, it will replace conventional physics. His audacity is breathtaking and he makes no effort at social niceties to disguise it. Yet a question mark still hangs over his claim to greatness. "Everyone knew he was going places," says an old colleague from Caltech. "But where to?" That conundrum remains unanswered.