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 (#637)

“I realized I’d been working more than 12 hours a day, every day, for basically all of the last 50 years. And I’m having a good time, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to mostly do things that add energy to me rather than taking it away.”

— Stephen Wolfram

Stephen Wolfram (@stephen_wolfram) is the creator of Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha, and the Wolfram Language; the author of A New Kind of Science; the originator of the Wolfram Physics Project; and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. Over the course of more than four decades, he has been a pioneer in the development and application of computational thinking and has been responsible for many discoveries, inventions, and innovations in science, technology, and business.

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#637: 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

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Want to hear another episode that ponders the nature of the universe and examines the role of consciousness? Have a listen to my conversation with Professor Donald Hoffman here, in which we discuss how perception may influence the physical world, the holographic model of the universe, panpsychism (and influential panpsychists), cosmological polytope, the use of hallucinogenic drugs to tap into deeper reality and interact with conscious agents, QBism, the probability of zero that humans evolved to see reality in full, the science of consciousness, and much more wild stuff.

#585: Professor Donald Hoffman — The Case Against Reality, Beyond Spacetime, Rethinking Death, Panpsychism, QBism, and More

What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.



  • Connect with Stephen Wolfram:

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  • [06:58] How Stephen collects information for his vast personal archives.
  • [08:40] When a situation warrants building a matrix.
  • [12:31] Science sometimes makes us look far back to move incrementally forward.
  • [17:49] Befriending the computational.
  • [22:59] How technology helps us navigate natural language.
  • [32:30] How Stephen chose subjects for his book Idea Makers.
  • [35:09] On spending time with Richard Feynman.
  • [37:33] Thoughts on Srinivasa Ramanujan.
  • [39:57] When Stephen started solving science problems with computers.
  • [42:00] Heresies today, gospels tomorrow.
  • [50:14] Ruminations on the ruliad.
  • [1:03:46] What is time?
  • [1:12:03] What constitutes consciousness?
  • [1:15:56] Personal infrastructure and productivity.
  • [1:23:25] Maintaining energy in the midst of a busy life.
  • [1:29:37] Avoiding once-inevitable sickness after air travel.
  • [1:31:50] Making time count — in sickness and in health.
  • [1:32:45] Parting thoughts.


“Even very simple programs can do very complicated things. That was something I didn’t expect. It was a violation of my intuition. It took me a couple of years to come to terms with the fact that that was possible.”

— Stephen Wolfram

“A big part of what I’ve spent my life doing is building this kind of computational language, which [allows us to] represent [something] computationally in a precise way. … A human could read it and say, ‘Oh, I know what that means.’ But also we have the extra boost from the fact that a computer can read it, too, and then the computer can help us to get further.”

— Stephen Wolfram

“To what extent can we translate the things we think we care about into something which can be represented computationally?”

— Stephen Wolfram

“The thing to understand about translation, ultimately, is the destination mind isn’t built the same way the source mind is necessarily built.”

— Stephen Wolfram

“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. It’s this thing that comes from nowhere. Because it’s just coming, not from the natural world, but the computational world. You’re just turning over this rock in the computational world and suddenly you discover that there’s this whole crazy thing going on underneath it.”

— Stephen Wolfram

“I think I can finally say I think I actually understand quantum mechanics. And it’s just this idea of the branching mind perceiving the branching universe. I hadn’t seen that coming at all. And it’s a bizarre idea that turns out, I think, to unlock how that works.”

— Stephen Wolfram

“You can attribute different rules to the operation of the universe, but they’re convertible, in the same way as your computer can be made to run a spreadsheet rather than a word processor.”

— Stephen Wolfram

“You were asking about different human languages. That’s an example of being in different places in rulial space. So you can imagine two languages where the way of thinking about the world is very similar, they kind of correspond to nearby places in rulial space, where it’s pretty easy to translate, to travel from one to the other. Whereas very different sorts of views of the world are further away in rulial space. And that’s just a way of perhaps conceptualizing what this thing is about.”

— Stephen Wolfram

“I realized I’d been working more than 12 hours a day, every day, for basically all of the last 50 years. And I’m having a good time, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to mostly do things that add energy to me rather than taking it away.”

— Stephen Wolfram


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5 Replies to “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 (#637)”

  1. When Stephen is mentioning simple programs fractals come to my mind. These are really simple equations that can describe really complex structures if you keep turning the computations.

  2. The idea of structured thinking is really striking. In fact this is how any knowledge is stored in the human brain. It is all stored like on a multidimensional map. If we acquire some new knowledge we always save it in relation to something that we already know. We do this automatically but it helps a lot in our learning process if we actually make a conscious effort in reviewing the map. more on the same idea in the Theory of a thousand brains.

  3. Stephen uses Wolfram Notebooks for all his organizing needs. When he mentions matrixes in this interview, I’m certain he’s talking about real formal Wolfram Language matrixes. The notebooks are an integral part of the Wolfram Language and an integral part of his multiple companies, foundations, and initiatives. If he needs some feature in notebooks he either does it himself or he requests that someone on staff do it. These notebooks are a rather amazing Swiss Army Knife of computational and structural functionality.

    Read “Seeking the Productive Life: Some Details of My Personal Infrastructure” on Stephen’s blog: . Note the section “My Filesystem” in the article. Stephen notes: “The three main applications I use all day are Wolfram Desktop, a web browser, and email. My main way of working is to create (or edit) Wolfram Notebooks. Here are a few notebooks I worked on today […]”. Stephen notes he has created over 100,000 (!!!) notebooks and can locate data in any of them very rapidly.

    Notebooks are the interface to Wolfram’s calculating/operating engine. They have been around since 1988; those first notebooks are still compatible with the current software. Maintaining compatibility over 35 years is a neat trick. Wolfram’s 800 employees are distributed worldwide; most (including Stephen) work at home. They did that decades before the pandemic. Wolfram Notebooks supports that style of work and distributed coordination. Code, text annotations, and formatting all exist in notebooks. They’re used for classes, Powerpoint-style presentations, etc. I’m certain that Stephen’s blog articles are straight exports of a Wolfram notebook. They dogfood their product like nobody else: it is essential for their business to operate.

    Anyone who wants to could individually embrace his system. It would probably be helpful (but not essential) if you were using Wolfram notebooks for your job. I’m guessing this is an “It takes a village” kind of thing. A lone wolf would probably struggle to thrive using Wolfram notebooks, but 20-30 people working together could pull it off. Stephen is both strong willed and has a huge network.

  4. I found very interesting the observation that flying in planes caused him to get sick. It might not only be because of the dry air, but also due to the radiation from the various devices reflecting inside the metal airplane’s fuselage.