In this collection of essays, Wolfram (How to Teach Computational Thinking, 2018, etc.), the founder and CEO of software company Wolfram Research, recounts some of his more interesting endeavors in the world of computing.
When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and as Wolfram tells it, when you’re a computing expert, everything looks like a computing problem: “Whether I’m thinking about science, or technology, or philosophy, or art,” he writes in his preface, “the computational paradigm provides both an overall framework and specific facts that inform my thinking.” Sometimes the problem really is a computing-related one, as when Wolfram was asked to help in the creation of realistic screen displays for the 2016 sci-fi film Arrival. At other times, the problem is harder to address, as when a friend asked him for help on a project to manufacture quartz discs that would be left in various locations around the solar system to communicate with aliens; this required figuring out how one would talk with beings without a shared cultural context. Over the course of the book, the author shows how his computing knowledge helped him solve myriad puzzles, whether it was figuring out whether computers can make music as good as humans’, or what to call a mathematical language of the his own invention (he landed, not so creatively, on “Wolfram Language”). The author’s prose is deliberative and accessible, and readers will often feel as if they’re sitting through a lecture by an experienced and enthusiastic professor: “What is a rhombic hexecontahedron? It’s called a ‘hexecontahedron’ because it has 60 faces, and ἑξηκοντα (hexeconta) is the Greek word for 60. (Yes, the correct spelling is with an ‘e’, not an ‘a’.)” But although some of the essays are compelling, others are less so; many of the latter seem to have originated as posts on Wolfram’s corporate blog. Specifically, there’s an unmistakable trend of self-promotion throughout the book, with Wolfram frequently bringing up his own company’s innovations and products. As a result, he starts to seem less like a curious explorer and more like a salesman. A sometimes-engaging but overlong and self-congratulatory set of writings.