Stephen Wolfram — Personal Productivity Systems, Richard Feynman Stories, Computational Thinking as a Superpower, Perceiving a Branching Universe, and The Ruliad… The Biggest Object in Metascience | Tim Ferriss Show (#637)

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Key Takeaways

  • Computation is just another way to structure how we talk about the world— understanding the world with computers
    • Stephen wants to create computational notation for talking about the world “…that is kind of a parallel for computation of what mathematical notation is for the mathematical way of talking about the world.”Stephen Wolfram
  • The thoughts themselves are not transferable, but the formal representation of thoughts (language) is transferable
  • Richard Feynman liked to play tricks on the world by giving people the intuitive answer without revealing the complicated math behind it
    • Ramanujan was also an experimental mathematician, discovering many things without using computers
  • People were surprised by Stephen’s ability to do complicated calculations, but it was just Stephen + the computer
    • Using tools where people don’t necessarily even understand that those tools exist has some interesting consequences
  • Steven spent a lot of his scientific effort getting intuition from doing computer experiments
    • “… there’s a certain art to doing a good computer experiment, but you can discover things that you never thought were there, and they inform your intuition and allow you to build things up.”Stephen Wolfram
  • Space has an inner structure made up of discrete atoms of existence
    • Stephen theorizes that everything in the universe is a feature of the way these atoms are connected
    • All known particles and forces are like eddies (like a little whirlpool) in the structure of this giant network
  • The concept of the ruled is a strange and profoundly abstract thing that encapsulates all formal possibilities and everything about our physical universe
    • According to Wolfram, everything we experience can be regarded as sampling that part of the ruliad that corresponds to our particular means of understanding the universe
  • Time is the inevitable progress of computation, but it has many complicated features in the way that it manifests in the universe
    • Time progresses in most of the universe but stops at the center of a black hole (the space-time singularity)
    • We would not know if the universe stopped because we would be stopped too
  • Humans may not be the “best thing in the universe”
    • The universe has much more capability than we have
  • Recording video work logs can help make work feel more meaningful, prevent wasting time, and provide evidence of how something was figured out
  • Doing things you like can be an energizing force
  • Finishing creative tasks can be energizing
  • Habitual behaviors can be beneficial, even if they are not optimal (eating, sleeping, etc.)

Intro

  • Stephen Wolfram (@stephen_wolfram) is a computer scientist, physicist, and pioneer in developing and applying computational thinking. He is the brainchild of the Wolfram Physics Project, a new approach to discovering the fundamental theory of physics
  • Steven Wolfram and Tim Ferriss talk about all things computational, time perception, what constitutes consciousness, the ruliad—the biggest object in metascience, and much more
  • Host – Tim Ferriss (@tferriss)

How Stephen Collects Information for His Vast Personal Archives

  • Stephen collects a lot of digital and paper documents, including emails, trip reports, and scans of paper documents
  • He records all of his keystrokes and screen captures due to a computer crash 25 years ago, which caused him to lose a bunch of stuff
  • He has scans of approximately a quarter million pages of paper documents

When a Situation Warrants Building a Matrix

  • Having a framework or matrix to organize ideas and projects can help to make progress
    • Matrices help avoid having “disembodied ideas” floating around
  • Wolfram Language—a large number of ideas he has about how to represent things computationally wind up here 
  • Writing a blog can be a helpful way to organize ideas (another kind of matrix)

Befriending the Computational

  • Humans use abstract, formal ways to describe things
    • Language is an example of this
    • Logic and mathematics are other organizational approaches we use to structure the way we talk about the world
  • Computation is just another way to structure how we talk about the world— understanding the world with computers
  • Symbols such as the plus sign and equals sign were invented around 500 years ago
    • The use of symbols streamlined the way to talk about mathematics
  • Stephen wants to create computational notation for talking about the world “…that is kind of a parallel for computation of what mathematical notation is for the mathematical way of talking about the world.”Stephen Wolfram

How Technology Helps Us Navigate Natural Language

  • Tim and Stephen talk about the difficulty of translating thoughts between different languages and cultures
  • Language is a representation of organized human thoughts
  • Different cultures have different words and concepts that may not have a translation
  • How to make computational language represent human thoughts?
  • The “destination mind” isn’t built the same way the “source mind” is
  • E.g., Two machine-learning neural network systems trained how to tell cats from dogs will have different internal methods by how they do it
    • The details of how they learned things inside will be different
  • The same goes for humans—even if we could do a brain-to-brain transfer of thoughts, it’s not going to work
    • The thoughts themselves are not transferable, but the formal representation of thoughts (language) is transferable

How Stephen Chose Subjects for His Book Idea Makers

  • Idea Makers is a compilation of Stephen’s essays about people involved with math and calculus problems
  • He chose the people for his book in an opportunistic manner
    • He included people he knew, such as Dick Feynman and Steve Jobs, as well as people who died before he was born, such as Ada Lovelace and Ramanujan
  • Tim bought the set of Encyclopedia Britannica that Feynman bought when he was 43 years old.
    • It was a reminder never to stop searching and learning

On spending time with Richard “Dick” Feynman

  • Stephen met him when he was 18, and Dick was 60
  • Dick was very competitive and had an impressive ability to think deeply and intuitively about any topic
  • He was good at hand calculations and liked to figure out answers intuitively
  • He liked to play tricks on the world by giving people the intuitive answer without revealing the complicated math behind it

Thoughts on Srinivasa Ramanujan

  • Ramanujan was an excellent calculator
  • He produced remarkable mathematical results
  • He claimed to have received his formulas in a dream from a goddess
  • He had a solid mathematical intuition which allowed him to calculate Pi accurately
  • Ramanujan was also an experimental mathematician, discovering many things without using computers
    • His intuition occasionally failed him, as was the case with his result about prime numbers
  • Mathematicians of the time had never seen anything like it; for them, it was like magic
    • But, it was actually hard work of computation

When Stephen Started Solving Science Problems With Computers

  • Stephen discovered the power of computers for doing science at a young age
    • Not everyone was using computers to do science at that time
  • People were surprised by his ability to do complicated calculations, but it was just Stephen + the computer
    • Using tools where people don’t necessarily even understand that those tools exist has some interesting consequences
    • “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”Stephen Wolfram quoting Arthur C. Clarke
  • Steven spent a lot of his scientific effort getting intuition from doing computer experiments
    • “… there’s a certain art to doing a good computer experiment, but you can discover things that you never thought were there, and they inform your intuition and allow you to build things up.”Stephen Wolfram

Heresies Today, Gospels Tomorrow

  • Heresy in this context is something (particular belief, scientific insight) that people would disagree with you about
  • What are Stephen’s heresies?
    • Space has an inner structure made up of discrete atoms of existence
    • Stephen theorizes that everything in the universe is a feature of the way these atoms are connected
    • All known particles and forces are like eddies (like a little whirlpool) in the structure of this giant network
    • “And it’s my strong belief that everything we know in the universe, all the electrons and photons, and the things we that get made up of those, they’re all just things like eddies in the structure of this giant network that is the underlying data structure of the universe, and the underlying thing that space is made of.”Stephen Wolfram

Ruminations on the Ruliad

  • The concept of the ruliad is a construct that has arisen from the Physics Project and has profound implications even outside of science
    • It is a strange and profoundly abstract thing that encapsulates all formal possibilities and everything about our physical universe
    • According to Wolfram, everything we experience can be regarded of as sampling that part of the ruliad that corresponds to our particular means of understanding the universe
  • The three prominent theories of 20th-century physics: general relativity, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics
    • Wolfram theorizes how general relativity, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics are all connected and derivable from each other
    • All three of these theories of come from the same place
    • They’re all derivable ultimately from what they call the ruliad—the limit of all possible computations
    • All three of those theories are the results of observers sampling the ruliad
  • Two features determine how we sample this ruliad thing, which is the ultimate limit of all possible processes:
  • 1. Our minds are computationally bounded
    • Our computational capabilities limit our understanding of the universe
    • We cannot describe the exact location of every atom in the universe—we are talking about much more filtered versions of what’s going on in the universe
  • 2. We perceive ourselves as persistent in time
    • At every moment, we are made from different atoms of space
    • New atoms are constantly being created and destroyed
    • Despite this, we believe that we are persistent in time
  • The sampling that we get to do gives us those three features, those three big theories of 20th-century physics
  • Read this article for more details on the concept of the ruliad 

What Is Time?

  • Time is the inevitable progress of computation, but it has many complicated features in the way that it manifests in the universe
  • The universe is transformed from one state to another as time passes
  • Computational reducibility prevents us from jumping ahead in time
  • Time progresses in most of the universe but stops at the center of a black hole (the space-time singularity)
    • We would not know if the universe stopped because we would be stopped too
  • In their model of physics (the Physics Project), the universe is constantly being updated, but at the center of a black hole, no more updates can be applied
  • Relativity theory and gravitation theory—what counts as simultaneity in time
  • Quantum mechanics—is there just one thread of time or are there many
  • For most of us, most of the time, it’s just a definite thread or experience
    • Possibility of a multi-way trance to experience multiple threads of experience simultaneously?
  • How do we actually measure what happened in the quantum process?
    • Humans must knit together these threads of history to get a definite answer—something they are trying to figure out

What Constitutes Consciousness?

  • Our minds have features of computational boundedness, belief, and persistence
    • These features are necessary to derive things in physics—they are also what distinguishes us from the rest of the universe
  • Humans may not be the “best thing in the universe”
    • The universe has much more capability than we have
  • Consciousness is filtering of that capability to something specific, where we believe, for example, that there’s a single thread of experience that we have
    • “…the application of consciousness to science is this thing where it’s not about everything in the universe, it’s just about the particular things that are sort of the way that our minds perceive things.”Stephen Wolfram
  • Isn’t there some magic thing in consciousness that is this sort of spark different from everything else in the universe?
    • To us, inside, there absolutely is. To us, inside, our experience of the universe is entirely unique
    • “There may be some other point in rulial space, some other mind that is fairly close by where we can say, “We’re experiencing these things. We can tell they’re similar to what’s being experienced here.” But each sort of consciousness is unique in that sense.” – Stephen Wolfram

Personal Infrastructure and Productivity

  • Live streaming working meetings can help increase focus—people pay more attention because they know it’s going out to the world
    • Live streaming provides immediate feedback
  • Recording video work logs can help make work feel more meaningful, prevent wasting time, and provide evidence of how something was figured out
  • Stephen has been doing weekly Q&A sessions about science and technology since the beginning of the pandemic
    • Talking to a camera can be a useful forcing function to figure out answers to questions
    • Explaining concepts can help to realize new pieces of information

Maintaining Energy Amid a Busy Life

  • Doing things you like can be an energizing force
  • Finishing creative tasks can be energizing
  • Exercise can help add energy to one’s life
  • Scheduling constraints can help one stay on track with their goals
    • To learn more about the power of constraints, check out these Podcast Notes with Seth Godin
  • Having a regular sleep schedule can help optimize other aspects of life.
  • Habitual behaviors can be beneficial, even if they are not optimal (eating, sleeping, etc.)
  • It is important to simplify aspects of life that are not important to focus on the things that are

A Potential Hack to Prevent Getting Sick After a Flight

  • Stephen has noticed a correlation between getting sick and flying on a plane
  • The theory is that the dry air on planes can dry out the nose and weaken the immune system.
  • He suggests taking wheat germ and other supplements before flying to help prevent this from happening
  • Maintain the moisture integrity of the sinal lining—Tim suggests a nose spray
  • You can also take choline as a supplement
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