Stephen Wolfram reflects back on Steve Jobs

Tue, Oct 18, 2011


You may not have heard of Stephen Wolfram but rest assured that he’s a brilliant guy. Born in Britain to Jewish refugees, Wolfram is the man behind Mathematica, A New Kind of Science and, more recently, Wolfram Alpha. Not too long ago Wofram penned a truly informative look back at his relationship with Steve Jobs, someone he considered a friend and mentor and whose relationship with the Apple co-founder goes back to the 1980s.

Here, Wolfram recalls his interactions with Jobs regarding Mathematica, which ultimately came bundled with ever NeXT computer. As it turns out, Jobs was integral in naming the software itself.

Over the months after our first meeting, I had all sorts of interactions with Steve about Mathematica. Actually, it wasn’t yet called Mathematica then, and one of the big topics of discussion was what it should be called. At first it had been Omega (yes, like Alpha) and later PolyMath. Steve thought those were lousy names. I gave him lists of names I’d considered, and pressed him for his suggestions. For a while he wouldn’t suggest anything. But then one day he said to me: “You should call it Mathematica”.

I’d actually considered that name, but rejected it. I asked Steve why he thought it was good, and he told me his theory for a name was to start from the generic term for something, then romanticize it. His favorite example at the time was Sony’s Trinitron. Well, it went back and forth for a while. But in the end I agreed that, yes, Mathematica was a good name. And so it has been now for nearly 24 years.

And this anecdote is just great.

Wolfram recalls that when he finished working on A New Kind of Science, he asked Jobs to write a blurb to be placed on the back of the book cover. Jobs duly refused, simpy explaining, “Isaac Newton didn’t have back-cover quotes; why do you want them?””

“And that’s how, at the last minute,” he writes, “the back cover of A New Kind of Science ended up with just a simple and elegant array of pictures. Another contribution from Steve Jobs, that I notice every time I look at my big book.”

It’s hard to remember tonight all the ways Steve Jobs has supported and encouraged us over the years. Big things and small things. Looking at my archive I realize I’d forgotten just how many detailed problems he jumped in to solve. From the glitches in versions of NEXTSTEP, to the personal phone call not long ago to assure us that if we ported Mathematica and CDF to iOS they wouldn’t be banned.

There’s a helluva lot more in the full entry which is well-worth the read.

Wolfram concludesL

When I first met Steve Jobs nearly 25 years ago I was struck by him explaining to me that NeXT was what he “wanted to do with his thirties”. At the time, I thought it was a bold thing to plan one’s life in decades like that. And—particularly for those us who spend their lives doing large projects—it’s incredibly inspiring to see what Steve Jobs was able to achieve in his small number of decades, so tragically cut short today.

Thank you, Steve, for everything.



Comments are closed.

eXTReMe Tracker