The Wolfram Atlas of Simple Programs The Wolfram Atlas of Simple Programs

System Categories Cellular Automata Turing Machines Mobile Automata Substitution Systems Tag Systems Register Machines Symbolic Systems Systems Based on Numbers Network Systems Multiway Systems Systems Based on Constraints Axiom Systems
About the Atlas of Simple Programs

The Wolfram Atlas of Simple Programs charts the computational world introduced in Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science. Much like the atlases of another age of exploration, the Atlas both documents what has been uncovered, and defines entryways into the unknown.

Also like its spiritual predecessors, the Atlas is primarily visual. The irreducible complexity present in even the simplest of systems cannot be accurately characterized by a small set of numbers or equations--and attempts to do so will filter out potentially interesting behavior. The Atlas therefore strives to present all information about a system's behavior as directly as possible--typically by using pictures.

In addition to the definition and evolution of systems, the Atlas maintains a list of simple and general questions relevant within a class of systems. These questions are then answered for each class member to the extent the Atlas's resources allow. In a specific case this answer may not seem immediately interesting. But unless one in effect already knows what to look for, working within this kind of systematic framework is the best way to discover new phenomena. For among other things, the ability to quickly absorb large quantities of data and evaluate simple hypothesis builds one's intuition. Having developed a greater sense of context, it is possible to return to a property initially dismissed and find in it some new and unexpected behavior.

The simple, systematic analysis generated by the Atlas is intended to promote the methodology of A New Kind of Science. But specific systems naturally lead to their own questions, and so the Atlas is also designed to document these important diversities. This aspect of basic science is an ends in itself, but it also builds a foundation which traditional science, and society in general, can connect with and build on. For much as the traders and settlers built on the details of trailblazers' accounts, those in science and elsewhere will apply the concrete results in the Atlas to further their own interests. And as the quantity of specific details grows, general principles will emerge and then diffuse into all areas of human activity.

Ultimately, the Atlas is more than just a database of knowledge about simple abstract systems. It is an experiment in building 21st century scientific communities. Despite having to go against the grain of three hundred years of science, NKS finds itself with a unique advantage: its objects of study exist natively in computers. For a start, this basic requirement is vastly more commonplace than the sophisticated technical knowledge prerequisite of established science. But perhaps more important in the long run is the fact that each NKS practitioner can communicate discoveries with very little overhead. Less bias need be exercised in choosing what to prepare for publication, and knowledge that would otherwise be locked away and forgotten may inspire another's contribution. Furthermore, the fact that each idea can exist independently of some cobbled-together structure means it is easier to understand, reuse, or investigate more deeply.

A curious aspect of NKS is the frequency with which it informs its surrounding meta-issues. The ideas behind the Atlas are certainly one example. As a consequence, the Atlas and its sister initiatives are very much in the same historical state as the main thrust of NKS--endowed with good, general ideas, but needing detail and execution. So the sooner an active community starts using and contributing to it, the sooner it will be possible to identify and address the questions and issues the Atlas's own evolution raises.

Kovas Boguta
Wolfram Science Group

Read also about the technology of the atlas.

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