A couple of years ago I was reading “New Kind of Science” (NKS) by S. Wolfram, and it presented lot of interesting ideas for a young Physics undergraduate. Now that I am studying Mathematics however, I realise that many ideas of NKS seem to be not so novel afterall, and contained in the Maths literature already, yet with different names.
Is NKS actually presenting novel material?
If yes, what in particular?
If not, what authors have already done this kind of work? Is NKS a “repackaging” of ideas?
I think the answer to this question is, unfortunately, a little difficult. As many will point out, Wolfram is beyond egotistical and that fact definitely colors the reception of the book. There is a long list of (mostly negative) reviews here. The negativity reaches its apex in the review by Cosma Shalizi. There are some positive reviews as well, though, such as the one by Rudy Rucker.
So, what is NKS? Most correctly, I would say that it is a broad and semi-popular account of Wolfram’s work in cellular automata. For those in the field, it clearly builds on the work of others. There are references to this fact in the text but it could certainly be made more explicit. To more clearly see Wolfram’s own contributions, you might examine his earlier collection of papers Cellular Automata and Complexity. Rucker lists several of these in his review as well. An honest assessment of his earlier contributions reveal that he is certainly an important researcher in the field and most researchers would be happy to have his body of work. Given the clear antecedents, however, I think that “New Kind of Science” is a definite overstatement. He is in no danger of winning an Abel or Nobel prize.
So, the truth of NKS is certainly somewhere in the huge gulf between a revolutionary (well) new kind of science and (as Shalizi puts it) “utter bat shit insanity”.