Great Minds, Great Ideas

If the respective experiences of Stephen Wolfram and Dean Kamen are any indication, hell on earth for a brilliant innovator is spelled s-c-h-o-o-l.

British-born Wolfram, now 42, son of a novelist and a philosophy professor, was miserable at Eton, the boy's hoary boarding school outside London. He figured out the locations on the fabled playing fields where a soccer ball was least likely to find him, ignored his instructor's attempts to "try to teach us how to eat peas" and was astonished at how little they added to the scientific knowledge he'd gathered on his own. Kamen, 51, whose dad was an artist for Mad magazine, found himself at odds with his public-school teachers in New York's Long Island because he noted that his wrong answers weren't really wrong. For instance, when asked to select the word that didn't belong to the set "add, subtract, multiply, increase," Kamen might choose "add" because all the others had seven letters.

In their defense, the respective educational systems of Britain and America did not prove fatal to these untamable minds. In fact, both have made use of the same traits that got them in hot water three decades ago to become perhaps the most celebrated innovators of the young century. Certainly the most audacious.

Wolfram's fierce independence, along with his chronically low opinion of the establishment, led him to a 10-year descent into solitude, from which he emerged only last week with a phone-book-size tome, "A New Kind of Science," that claims to literally recast the entire field of science and jigger our perception of the universe (hint: it works like a computer program). Kamen's innate ability to think out of the box has made him the poster boy for invention, with his latest creation, the Segway Human Transporter (the two-wheeled self-balancing superscooter known to many as simply "It"), creating a national sensation before it even hit the streets.

In an age where a great nation's capital goes gaga at the sight of Ozzy Osbourne, perhaps it's time to take a look at minds capable of blazing trails that might not be forgotten by the time the next sweeps rolls around. This week, MIT's Technology Review does its part by introducing the TR100, a list of under-35 contenders in fields like biology, software, nanotechnology and math. But topping the heavyweight category are Wolfram and Kamen, two larger-than-life presences whose dossiers--wealthy mavericks who warp science and technology from their respective Batcaves--might tempt Hollywood. Any discussion of how innovation works might begin by looking at what this disparate pair has accomplished, and how.

In many senses, of course, you could not find two more different men than Kamen and Wolfram. Dean Kamen is a classic inventor, often referred to as the Edison of our age. He's an empire builder, owning thousands of square feet of brick-factory space on the banks of the Merrimack River in Manchester, N.H., where his burgeoning collection of companies churns out his trailblazing products. And though his business techniques are idiosyncratic--the swashbuckling inventor is a seat-of-the-pants CEO whose style is more Tom Swift than Jack Welch--he's got a firm sense of the bottom line. Pompadoured and trim in Timberland boots, jeans and denim shirt, Kamen is tireless and gregarious, spinning monologues that blend Lord Buckley with Lord Kelvin. His style of invention is one of continual mental motion. "Dean is able to run a movie in his head very quickly, simulating not only the electromechanics of a scheme but the societal effects as well," says Kamen's friend MIT professor Woodie Flowers. Innovation is built into the process: if you were duplicating previous work, it wouldn't be inventing, would it? Failure is a constant; Kamen urges his engineers to "kiss the frog," referring to the many tries it takes to transform an amphibian into a prince.

There's no boundary between life and work for Kamen. "To me a vacation is to go from one project to another," he says. He generally does business tasks during the day. By late afternoon he'll head for the engineering division of one of his companies. He dines with his engineers. Then he'll either return to the office or retreat to his 30,000-square-foot-Valhalla. (The mansion has two helicopters, a Hummer, a fully equipped machine shop, a full-size baseball diamond in the backyard... and no wife and family to greet him. "I can start the biggest [technical] project in the world, but I think getting in relationships is riskier and to me scarier," says Kamen.

Kamen's first big breakthroughs were in the medical field; he was still in college when his physician brother complained that there was no way to easily dispense intravenous drugs to outpatients. The result was Kamen's portable insulin pump, followed by a heart stent that keeps blood vessels open (Dick Cheney is a satisfied customer), and a shoebox-size dialysis machine that liberates kidney patients from constant hospital visits. Then came the iBot, the stair-climbing wheelchair robot. (Kamen has taken it up the Eiffel Tower.) The iBot's amazing ability to move--and stand still--on two wheels while maintaining balance led Kamen to create a "human transporter" (please don't call it a scooter). Riding on a Segway is a thrill, and Kamen's executives claim that reports from the test projects are wildly positive. (Even the first Segway mishap, where an Atlanta policeman hit an unexpected rut and whacked his knee two weeks ago, hasn't dampened the city's enthusiasm.) But there's a legitimate question of whether a $3,000 device that moves people at three times walking speed is really necessary. Kamen has no doubts. "The invention of Segway is about appropriate technology applied to the appropriate problem. Empowering pedestrians, giving them magic sneakers, can leverage the existing infrastructure of cities, and give people a factor of two or three or four times their productivity--that's a big deal." Also a big deal is Kamen's work on the Stirling engine, a 200-year-old concept that he hopes to implement not only to charge Segway batteries, but provide low-cost, nonpolluting power to Third World countries--and purify water to boot.

Though he believes his work will have a significant effect on society, Kamen doesn't lose sight of its essentially commercial nature. "To me, engineering was learning a trade. I'm never going to be a Newton or Galileo, " he says. But Stephen Wolfram's mission is to present a vision of science so sweeping and insightful that he will be a Newton or Galileo.

For Wolfram, immodesty is a shortcut that enables others to get how important his ideas are. "The stuff I've done is very respectable on a long-term historical scale," he says. Asked if anyone else alive is doing anything of equal scope and import, he is blunt. "There's nobody as far as I know."

That confidence--or arrogance, as some regard it--has been characteristic of Wolfram since he published his first paper at 15. At Oxford, he didn't thinkthe lectures were worth his time, so he developed a career as a particle physicist on his own, leaving at the age of 20 to accept a Ph.D. at Caltech, where he immediately joined the faculty. In the late 1980s he started a software company to sell Mathematica, a computation program he'd written; a million people now use it, and Wolfram is rich. But for all of the '90s Wolfram dropped out of sight, supposedly writing a book that would hit science upside the head.

During his reclusive decade he lost most of his hair and gained a slight paunch. His brusque personal style was tempered somewhat by gaining a family; he now has three children from his marriage to a mathematician. But he was unrelenting and unstinting in his pursuit of his scientific vision. To maximize his productivity, he "went nocturnal," working through the night and retiring in the morning. For a few hours in the afternoon, he'd run his company by e-mail and videoconference. At night, he'd move to the soundproof office in his Chicago-area home and run the computer simulations that were the basis of his work, which was just dropped into the world's lap last week in a 5i-pound package. Not trusting it in the hands of a traditional publisher, he used his own resources to self-publish it.

The critical observation in "A New Kind of Science" is easy to state and difficult to absorb: very simple rules can generate extremely complicated results. Wolfram first noticed this effect in his 20s by looking at "cellular automata" (CA), mathematical systems where patterns on grids are changed by successive applications of rules of transformation. Wolfram caused quite a stir in the scientific community by switching his focus to CA--considered a rather oddball backwater of physics then--and using computer-based experiments as the crux of his work. But the idea of taking big steps on virgin ground appealed to him more than making careful footprints on a well-trodden path. He became convinced that the universe itself worked just like CA--everything from quanta to our own brains were the results of simple rules being calculated, just like a computer grinds away at a program.

The "proof" for this is circumstantial, and most often comes from devising particular rules for computer experiments and replicating phenomena found in nature. For instance, certain CA yield triangular patterns that uncannily resemble the shapes on certain seashells. Could nature be following the same rules? Ultimately, Wolfram believes, we'll discover extremely simple rules that are the basis of the universe itself. How simple? Something that could be expressed in just a few lines of computer code.

"A New Kind of Science" is encyclopedic, a "Ulysses"-like text that applies Wolfram's ideas to a wide range of subjects: physics, math, philosophy, robotics, economics, logic, even theology. One reason it took him so long is that he kept unearthing new discoveries in various fields. It became a joke among his assistants. "So you're going to figure out some big thing in this field in the next couple of days?" they'd ask. And Wolfram would say, "Yes, that's what I'm going to do." And proceed to do it, at least on his terms.

Some scientists aren't exactly thrilled. "There's a tradition of scientists approaching senility to come up with grand, improbable theories," says physicist Freeman Dyson. "Wolfram is unusual in that he's doing this in his 40s." But considering the icon-smashing nature of Wolfram's book, the initial reviews have been surprisingly respectful.

And the sales of a 1,280-page book full of pictures of computer experiments and theories of physics? On the eve of publication last Monday, relaxing in his home office in the Boston-area house he's just moved into, Wolfram checks out Amazon to see if he's still at No. 1. Yep. Earlier in the day he'd checked out how one of his presumed predecessors had performed. "The print run of Darwin's 'Origin of Species' was 1,250 copies, and it sold out on the first day," he reports. And a day or two later, Wolfram's 50,000-copy first printing sold out, and he ordered 30,000 or so more.

What's next for the two? Kamen is lobbying government to allow Segways on the sidewalk (22 states have agreed) and refining the Stirling engine for Segways and beyond. Wolfram just might set about finding those few lines of computer code that run the universe. Meanwhile, both men are passionate about aiding the innovative minds still mired in the purgatory of school. Wolfram is setting up programs so kids can do real scientific discovery based on his ideas. And Kamen is deeply involved with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nationwide robotics competition that spurs students to revere invention as much as they do athletics. Kamen and Wolfram survived their early years, but haven't forgotten how those who think out of the box hate to be kept in boxes.