The mad mathematician of the software industry
Stephen Wolfram, the brains behind Wolfram Alpha, has no qualms about bucking established practice. A mathematical prodigy, he published his first scientific paper at 15; studied at Eton, Oxford, and Caltech; and held staff positions at a number of universities, but left academia in the late 1980s to focus on entrepreneurship and independent research. He hasn't authored a proper, peer-reviewed paper in years, but in 2002 he published "A New Kind of Science," a 1,200-page tome that he claimed would revolutionize science and introduce "a whole new way of looking at the universe."
"It may sound arrogant, but I have moved pretty far away from what most scientists know about," Wolfram told Technology Review in 1997. "That means there are fewer and fewer people I can talk to about what I am doing. Your typical top scientist does not know this stuff."
Not everyone agrees. Wolfram's critics describe him as egotistical and dismissive; his research, undisciplined and flawed. Cosma Shalizi, a statistician at the University of Urbana whose work overlaps Wolfram's, fears that in his isolation Wolfram has become "a crank in the classic mold." "A New Kind of Science," Shalizi says, is not the landmark book Wolfram claims it is; rather, it is "a rare blend of monster raving egomania and utter batshit insanity."
If his science is suspect, however, Wolfram's business acumen is above dispute. Privately held Wolfram Research's main software product, the computational toolkit Mathematica, retails for around $2,500 per seat in many markets and has been wildly successful. The Wolfram Alpha engine was itself written in Mathematica, making it a valuable marketing tool for Wolfram's software offerings, if nothing else.
But Wolfram has much bigger plans for Alpha. The launch team says it's thinking of the project in terms of a 20-year-plus timeline, but it will always be a work in progress. The latter is generally true of any active site; in Wolfram's case, however, finding ways to profit from the knowledge engine must surely be an ongoing concern. No wonder the company sees its query results as intellectual property.