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World Science Scholars Feature Simon’s visit to CERN in a newsletter. The current course is about neurons. Reading Stephen Wolfram.

Simon’s September visit to CERN has been featured in a World Science Scholars newsletter:

Here’s our update on the World Science Scholars program. Simon has finished the first bootcamp course on the theory and quantum mechanics by one of program’s founders, string theorist Professor Brian Greene and has taken part in three live sessions: with Professor Brian Greene, Professor Justin Khoury (dark matter research, alternatives to the inflationary paradigm, such as the Ekpyrotic Universe), and Professor Barry Barish (one of the leading experts in gravitational waves and particle detectors; won the Nobel Prize in Physics along with Rainer Weiss and Kip Thorne “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”).

September 2019: Simon at a hotel room in Geneva taking pat in his first WSS live session, with Professor Brian Greene
September 2019: screenshot from Professor Brian Greene’s course module on quantum physics

At the moment, there isn’t much going on. Simon is following the second course offered by the program, at his own pace. It’s a course about neurology and neurological statistics by Professor Suzana Herculano-Houzel and is called “Big Brains, Small Brains: The Conundrum of Comparing Brains and Intelligence”. The course is compiled from Professor Herculano-Houzel’s presentations made at the World Science Festival so it doesn’t seem to have been recorded specifically for the scholars, like Professor Brian Greene’s course was.

Professor Herculano-Houzel has made “brain soup” (also called “isotropic fractionator”) out of dozens of animal species and has counted exactly how many neurons different brains are made of. Contrary to what Simon saw in Professor Greene’s course (mainly already familiar stuff as both relativity theory and quantum mechanics have been within his area of interest for quite some time), most of the material in this second course is very new to him. And possibly also less exciting. Although what helps is the mathematical way in which the data is presented. After all, the World Science Scholars program is about interdisciplinary themes that are intertwined with mathematical thinking.

Screenshots of the course’s quizzes. Simon has learned about scale invariance, the number of neurons in the human brain, allometric and isometric scaling relationships.

Another mathematical example: in Professor Herculano-Houzel’s course on brains we have witnessed nested patterns, as if they escaped from Stephen Wolfram’s book we’re reading now.

screenshot from the course by Professor Herculano-Houzel

Simon has also contributed to the discussion pages, trying out an experiment where paper surface represented cerebral cortex:

The top paper represents the cerebral cortex of a smaller animal. Cerebral cortex follows the same physical laws when folding is applied.

Simon: “Humans are not outliers because they’re outliers, they are outliers because there’s a hidden variable”.

screenshot from Professor Herculano-Houzel’s course: after colour has been added to the plot, the patterns reveal themselves

Simon is looking forward to Stephen Wolfram’s course (that he is recording for world science scholars) and, of course, to the live sessions with him. The information that Stephen Wolfram will be the next lecturer has stimulated Simon to dive deep into his writings (we are already nearly 400 pages through his “bible” A New Kind of Science) and sparked a renewed and more profound understanding of cellular automata and Turing machines and of ways to connect those to our observations in nature. I’m pretty sure this is just the beginning.

It’s amazing to observe how quickly Simon grasps the concepts described in A New Kind of Science; on several occasions he has tried to recreate the examples he read about the night before.

Simon playing around in Wolfram Mathematica, after reading about minor changes to the initial conditions of an idealised version of the kneading process
Simon working out a “study plan” for his Chinese lessons using a network system model he saw in Stephen Wolfram’s book “A New Kind of Science”
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Simon’s first steps in Stephen Wolfram’s Computational Universe

Simon has been enjoying Stephen Wolfram’s huge volume called A New Kind of Science and is generally growingly fascinated with Wolfram’s visionary ideas about the computational universe. We have been reading the 1500-page A New Kind of Science every night for several weeks now, Simon voraciously soaking up the behaviour of hundreds of simple programs like cellular automata.

Wolfram’s main message is that, contrary to our intuition, simple rules can result in complex and often seemingly random behaviour and since humanity now has the computer as a tool to study and simulate that behaviour, it could open a beautiful new alternative to the existing models used in science. According to Wolfram, we may soon realise that the mathematical models we are currently using, based on equations and constraints instead of simple rules, are merely a historical artefact. I’m amazed at how much this is in line with Simon’s own tentative thoughts he was sharing with me earlier this year, about how maths will be taken over by computer science and how algorithms are a more powerful tool than equations. When he came up with those ideas he hadn’t discovered Wolfram’s research and philosophy yet, he used to only know Wolfram as the creator of Wolfram Mathematica and the Wolfram language, both of which Simon greatly admires for being so advanced.

Last night, Simon was watching a TED talk Stephen Wolfram gave in 2010 about the possibilities of computing the much aspired theory of everything, but not in the traditional mathematical way. “It’s about the universe!” Simon whispered to me wide-eyed, when I came to the living room to fetch him. “Mom, and you know who was in the audience there? Benoit Mandelbrot!” (Simon knows Mandelbrot died the same year, he is intrigued by the fact that his and Mandelbrot’s lifetimes have actually overlapped by one year).

We have been informed by the World Science Scholars program that Stephen Wolfram will be one of the professors preparing a course for this year’s scholars cohort, so Simon will have the unique experience of taking that course and engaging in a live session with Stephen Wolfram. It is breathtaking, a chance to connect with someone who is much older, renowned and accomplished, and at the same time so like-minded, a soulmate.

Inspired by reading Stephen Wolfram, Simon has revisited the world of cellular automata and Turing machines, and created a few beautiful Langton’s Ants:

Link to Simon’s sketch on p5: https://editor.p5js.org/simontiger/sketches/sHa6d-AFf
Simon especially likes the last example in the video: “I think of it as triangular houses surrounding a flower garden!”

Simon has also watched a talk by Stephen Wolfram for MIT course 6.S099: Artificial General Intelligence. He said it had things in it about Wolfram Alpha that he didn’t know yet.

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The Netherlands Chase Away Extreme Talent

This summer, aged 9, Simon @simontigerh was named a World Science Scholar and joined a two-year program for the world’s most exceptional young math talents, as the youngest among the 75 students selected in 2018 and 2019. See the official press release for more info: https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20190905005166/en/World-Science-Festival-Announces-Newest-Class-%E2%80%9CWorld

Simon’s passion for science and his unique way to see the world have blossomed again once we have pulled him out of school, where he was becoming increasingly unhappy and was considered a problem student. The only way to set his mind free and allow him to follow the path that suits him best, the path of self-directed learning, was to leave Simon’s native Amsterdam and The Netherlands, where school attendance is compulsory.


I am sharing this at the time when educational freedom and parental rights in The Netherlands are in serious danger to become limited even further. It is bittersweet to celebrate Simon’s beautiful journey and at the same time see how The Netherlands are chasing away extreme talent as we are aware of more stories similar to that of Simon’s.

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Simon introducing himself for the World Science Scholars program

This is Simon’s introductory video for the World Science Scholars program (initiative of The World Science Festival). In May this year, Simon has been chosen as one of the 30 young students worldwide, joining the 2019 cohort for exceptional talents in mathematics. Most of the other students are 14 to 17 years old, age was not a factor in the selection process. To help the students and their future mentors to get to know one another, every World Science Scholar was asked to record an introductory video, no longer than 3 minutes, answering a few questions such as what is the biggest misconception about math, what your favourite branches of math and science are and who among the living mathematicians you’d like to meet.

Throughout the program, the students are given access to over a dozen unique interdisciplinary online courses and have the option to complete an applied math project, alone or as a team, consulting real experts in the field of their project. Simon has already started the first course module, on Special Relativity by Professor Brian Greene. The course has been specifically recorded for the World Science Scholars and reflects the program’s ethos: it’s self-paced, no grades, it relies on beautiful animations and visualizations, it’s full of subtle humour, is dynamic, thought-provoking and quite advanced (exactly in The Goldilocks Zone for Simon, as far as I could judge), yet broken up into easy-to-digest pieces. It’s difficult to predict how Simon’s path as a World Science Scholar will unfold (I’m afraid of making any predictions as he is extremely autodidact), but so far we have been very pleased with the nature of this program and it seems to match our non-coercive, self-directed learning style. I have especially liked one of the course’s main postulates: “Simultaneity is in the eye of the beholder”.

Simon watching Brian Greene’s Special Relativity course
Studying light clocks
Light clocks. Does the moving light clock tick slower?
Simon thinking about the question: Does the moving light clock tick slower?