Stephen Wolfram believes he has discovered that much of the universe can be understood in terms of simple programs – similar to, but far simpler than, those run by computers – rather than by means of traditional mathematical equations. “The Pythagoreans had this idea – all is number. This was a pretty good idea; it spawned mathematics,” he says, sipping his favourite drink, a 50:50 mixture of pineapple juice and Seven Up. “My comparable idea is that all is computation. You can use computation as a unifying thread to study all kinds of questions about natural systems.”

Sure enough, it is hard to find a single equation in the 846 pages of the main text of A New Kind of Science. The book is, however, teeming with beautiful images that illustrate the results of programs generated by rules so simple that a child could understand them. Nature, Wolfram says, uses simple programs like these in ways that have not been captured by traditional science.