Rating 7/10

My Summary:

A fun quick read where the brilliant Stephen Wolfram writes about five other brilliant people. More from a personal standpoint than a scientific one.


But with all of this, I’m still constantly struck by how hard it is to do history. So often there’s been some story or analysis that people repeat all the time. But somehow something about it hasn’t quite rung true with me. So I’ve gone digging to try to find out the real story. Occasionally one just can’t tell what it was. But at least for the people I’ve written about in this book, there are usually enough records and documents—or actual people to talk to—that one can eventually figure it out.

Perhaps the clearest lesson is that serious ideas that people have are always deeply entwined with the trajectories of their lives.

And often he’d come up with one of those classic Feynman straightforward-sounding explanations. And he’d never tell people about all the calculations behind it. Sometimes it was kind of a game for him: having people be flabbergasted by his seemingly instant physical intuition, not knowing that really it was based on some long, hard calculation he’d done.

One thing about Feynman is that he went to some trouble to arrange his life so that he wasn’t particularly busy—and so he could just work on what he felt like. Usually he had a good supply of problems. Though sometimes his long-time assistant would say: “You should go and talk to him. Or he’s going to start working on trying to decode Mayan hieroglyphs again.” He always cultivated an air of irresponsibility. Though I would say more towards institutions than people.

One of the things he often said was that “peace of mind is the most important prerequisite for creative work.” And he thought one should do everything one could to achieve that. And he thought that meant, among other things, that one should always stay away from anything worldly, like management.

One might think of undecidability as a limitation to progress, but in many ways it is instead a sign of richness. For with it comes computational irreducibility, and the possibility for systems to build up behavior beyond what can be summarized by simple formulas. Indeed, my own work suggests that much of the complexity we see in nature has precisely this origin. And perhaps it is also the essence of how from deterministic underlying laws we can build up apparent free will.

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Body photo © amazon.com