It was 1968. I was 8 years old. The “space race” was in full swing. For the first time, a space probe had recently landed on another planet (Venus). And I was eagerly studying everything I could to do with space.
Then on April 3, 1968 (May 15 in the UK), the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was released—and I was keen to see it. So in the early summer of 1968 there I was, the first time I’d ever been in an actual cinema (yes, it was called that in the UK). I’d been dropped off for a matinee, and was pretty much the only person in the theater. And to this day, I remember sitting in a plush seat and eagerly waiting for the curtain to go up, and the movie to begin.
It started with an impressive extraterrestrial sunrise. But then what was going on? Those weren’t space scenes. Those were landscapes, and animals. I was confused, and frankly a little bored. But just when I was getting concerned, there was a bone thrown in the air that morphed into a spacecraft, and pretty soon there was a rousing waltz—and a big space station turning majestically on the screen.
What happens if you take four of today’s most popular buzzwords and string them together? Does the result mean anything? Given that today is April 1 (as well as being Easter Sunday), I thought it’d be fun to explore this. Think of it as an Easter egg… from which something interesting just might hatch. And to make it clear: while I’m fooling around in stringing the buzzwords together, the details of what I’ll say here are perfectly real.
This June 23rd it’ll be 30 years since we released Version 1.0, and I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve now been able to maintain an accelerating rate of innovation and development for no less than three decades. Critical to this, of course, has been the fact that we use the Wolfram Language to develop the Wolfram Language—and indeed most of the things that we can now add in Version 11.3 are only possible because we’re making use of the huge stack of technology that we’ve been systematically building for more than 30 years.
We’ve always got a large pipeline of R&D underway, and our strategy for .1 versions is to use them to release everything that’s ready at a particular moment in time. Sometimes what’s in a .1 version may not completely fill out a new area, and some of the functions may be tagged as “experimental”. But our goal with .1 versions is to be able to deliver the latest fruits of our R&D efforts on as timely a basis as possible. Integer (.0) versions aim to be more systematic, and to provide full coverage of new areas, rounding out what has been delivered incrementally in .1 versions.
In addition to all the new functionality in 11.3, there’s a new element to our process. Starting a couple of months ago, we began livestreaming internal design review meetings that I held as we brought Version 11.3 to completion. So for those interested in “how the sausage is made”, there are now almost 122 hours of recorded meetings, from which you can find out exactly how some of the things you can now see released in Version 11.3 were originally invented. And in this post, I’m going to be linking to specific recorded livestreams relevant to features I’m discussing.
OK, so what’s new in Version 11.3? Well, a lot of things. And, by the way, Version 11.3 is available today on both desktop (Mac, Windows, Linux) and the Wolfram Cloud. (And yes, it takes extremely nontrivial software engineering, management and quality assurance to achieve simultaneous releases of this kind.) Continue reading
Let’s say we had a way to distribute beacons around our solar system (or beyond) that could survive for billions of years, recording what our civilization has achieved. What should they be like?
It’s easy to come up with what I consider to be sophomoric answers. But in reality I think this is a deep—and in some ways unsolvable—philosophical problem, that’s connected to fundamental issues about knowledge, communication and meaning.
Still, a friend of mine recently started a serious effort to build little quartz disks, etc., and have them hitch rides on spacecraft, to be deposited around the solar system. At first I argued that it was all a bit futile, but eventually I agreed to be an advisor to the project, and at least try to figure out what to do to the extent we can.
But, OK, so what’s the problem? Basically it’s about communicating meaning or knowledge outside of our current cultural and intellectual context. We just have to think about archaeology to know this is hard. What exactly was some arrangement of stones from a few thousand years ago for? Sometimes we can pretty much tell, because it’s close to something in our current culture. But a lot of the time it’s really hard to tell. Continue reading
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Thinking in Public
I’ve been CEOing Wolfram Research for more than 30 years now. But what does that actually entail? What do I end up doing on a typical day? I certainly work hard. But I think I’m not particularly typical of CEOs of tech companies our size. Because for me a large part of my time is spent on the front lines of figuring out how our products should be designed and architected, and what they should do.
Thirty years ago I mostly did this by myself. But nowadays I’m almost always working with groups of people from our 800 or so employees. I like to do things very interactively. And in fact, for the past 15 years or so I’ve spent much of my time doing what I often call “thinking in public”: solving problems and making decisions live in meetings with other people.
I’m often asked how this works, and what actually goes on in our meetings. And recently I realized: what better way to show (and perhaps educate) people than just to livestream lots of our actual meetings? So over the past couple of months, I’ve livestreamed over 40 hours of my internal meetings—in effect taking everyone behind the scenes in what I do and how our products are created. (Yes, the livestreams are also archived.)
People are used to producing prose—and sometimes pictures—to express themselves. But in the modern age of computation, something new has become possible that I’d like to call the computational essay.
I’ve been working on building the technology to support computational essays for several decades, but it’s only very recently that I’ve realized just how central computational essays can be to both the way people learn, and the way they communicate facts and ideas. Professionals of the future will routinely deliver results and reports as computational essays. Educators will routinely explain concepts using computational essays. Students will routinely produce computational essays as homework for their classes.
Here’s a very simple example of a computational essay:
Is there a global theory for the shapes of fishes? It’s the kind of thing I might feel encouraged to ask by my explorations of simple programs and the forms they produce. But for most of the history of biology, it’s not the kind of thing anyone would ever have asked. With one notable exception: D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson.
And it’s now 100 years since D’Arcy Thompson published the first edition of his magnum opus On Growth and Form—and tried to use ideas from mathematics and physics to discuss global questions of biological growth and form. Probably the most famous pages of his book are the ones about fish shapes:
It was only this spring that we released Version 11.1. But after the summer we’re now ready for another impressive release—with all kinds of additions and enhancements, including 100+ entirely new functions:
On August 21, 2017, there’s going to be a total eclipse of the Sun visible on a line across the US. But when exactly will the eclipse occur at a given location? Being able to predict astronomical events has historically been one of the great triumphs of exact science. But in 2017, how well can it actually be done?
The answer, I think, is well enough that even though the edge of totality moves at just over 1000 miles per hour it should be possible to predict when it will arrive at a given location to within perhaps a second. And as a demonstration of this, we’ve created a website to let anyone enter their geo location (or address) and then immediately compute when the eclipse will reach them—as well as generate many pages of other information.
How far can one get in teaching computational thinking to high-school students in two weeks? Judging by the results of this year’s Wolfram High-School Summer Camp the answer is: remarkably far.
I’ve been increasingly realizing what an immense and unique opportunity there now is to teach computational thinking with the whole stack of technology we’ve built up around the Wolfram Language. But it was a thrill to see just how well this seems to actually work with real high-school students—and to see the kinds of projects they managed to complete in only two weeks.