On the very first day of Wolfram Camp, I called Stephen Wolfram “Steve.”
“It’s Stephen, actually,” said the world’s most controversial physicist in his crisp-yet-droll British accent. In another life, the creator of Wolfram Alpha would have made an excellent BBC Radio News announcer. “No one under the age of 50 calls me Steve,” he added.
Katie Orenstein is a New York City-based writer, programmer, and thespian who moonlights as a high school senior.
Sign up to get Backchannel’s weekly newsletter.
“Sorry,” I said over the giggles of my 42 campmates. They included the boy from Baltimore who knew hundreds of digits of pi by heart; the one from Colombia who spoke five languages including Python and Russian; the soft-spoken boy from Mumbai who implemented university-level algorithms in C++ for fun; and the girl from Toronto who made it to rowing nationals and was also fascinated by actuarial science—in her Forever 21 Coachella shirt, she could explain at what age a New York State woman was most likely to die, statistically speaking. We’d come to spend two weeks on the campus of Bentley University in Waltham, MA learning Wolfram Language programming skills.
I am 17 years old. Generation Z-ers like me are even more technological than Millennials. While they were flirting in ninth grade on AOL Messenger, we were playing Brick Breaker on Mommy’s Blackberry during the commute to kindergarten. We know tech the way we know the lyrics to every song from High School Musical, or the plot lines of Harry Potter. We never sat down and learned it—we just absorbed it.
Having grown up with our devices, we are almost required—instinctually—to be creative with them. There’s a lot of anxiety right now about Gen Z’s amount of screen time. But have you seen what we’re up to? I’m joyfully watching my age group cook up a creative storm. Among my peers, coding is one of the trendier extracurriculars—along with photography, filmmaking, and visual art. Not that you should think my interest in coding in any way makes me cool. My other love is theater, and I’m always either the loudest person in a tech and science space (likely in the minority as a redhead, and also a girl), or one of the nerdiest in a theater kid/comedy world. I have the theater kid outspokenness and hugginess, and the STEM kid analytical mind. I want data supporting my hypothesis that “We Do Not Belong Together” from Sunday in the Park with George contains melodies from Into the Woods.
I had been to coding camps before, but Wolfram Camp was unique. The camp was run by Wolfram Research, which is known for its main product, the Wolfram Language, as well as its mother of all results engines/homework lifesaver Wolfram Alpha. Wolfram’s company is the Silicon Valley ideal, yet it has managed to reject a lot of Bay Area tropes. First, though the camp took place in Massachusetts, the company is based in Champaign, Illinois, rather than San Francisco, and it has offices in Boston and cities around the world like Tokyo and Lima. Some staffers are fresh out of college, while others “pulled a Stephen” and never got a BA—but still others, by Valley standards, are ancient, born (even a fair amount!) before 1986, the year the company was founded. The company has survived two dot-com booms, and a version of its flagship software still functions on the Apple II for which it was written. And that El Dorado of Silicon corporate culture—meritocracy—kinda-sorta seems real in WolframLand, because of how the company and the community are separated from the rest of the rat race by experience and geography.
You would think that with everything named after the guy, Wolfram would have a bit of a cult of personality. In retrospect, his life seems very similar to that of The West Wing’s President Bartlett, down to the bemusing and slightly odd way he has of putting on a jacket. His staff members deeply respect him and his ability to make brilliant, long-term decisions, but they get lovingly miffed when he makes impulsive ones in the short term. For example, he decided 48 hours in advance that he wanted to lead a trivia game with us campers, forcing his staff to find the time to hack together a clever buzzer app written in the Wolfram Cloud.
Wolfram, like Bartlett, always wants to know “what’s next?” He’s obsessed with these things called cellular automata, which totally became an inside joke at camp (it fits awkwardly into “XO TOUR LIF3” but we made it work) and about which you can read him wax poetic here. Wolfram has lots of titles but I think at his core, he is a futurist—both in terms of technology and human capital. And he gets frustrated and tired being around business-y grownups all day. He has four kids ranging in age from middle school to late college, and he loves to hang out with young people and hear about their interests and goals.
We Wolfram coder campers are self-selecting. We were sitting at breakfast during the second week of camp when AP scores came out, and I was suddenly surrounded by rising seniors who had gotten fives on the AP BC Calculus test—the most advanced test available for high schoolers. Not that I had done abysmally on my tests, but the sense of inferiority—and the feeling that one of these groggy teens eating cereal with me at 8:34 a.m. was going to be a billionaire faster than you can say “unicorn”—was unavoidable. But, us young savants have our wild(er) sides, and we were just as excited about our discovery that we could use cups from the coffee station to bring dining hall Lucky Charms with us to class. I finally understand why Silicon Valley startups are awash with better snack selections than a Costco chock full of free samples: Tiny doses of sugar are useful motivators for overcoming small setbacks in coding.
Days were packed. In the morning, we had about two hours of Wolfram Language lessons. You learn by doing—even the way you tell code to run is different in Wolfram, so your fingers have to anticipate different impulses. It’s equivalent to a ballet dancer learning hip-hop. You almost internalize it, save your file, and pop off to lunch. Every afternoon, guest speakers—who were often PhDs from Wolfram Research on “vacation”—led lectures on a vast variety of subjects. My personal favorite was a 70-minute introduction to artificial intelligence led by Wolfram’s machine-learning guru, Etienne Bernard. After lunch, we took more coding classes, worked on individual projects, had dinner, and sat through lectures on advanced math or whatever our instructors did for their PhD dissertations. We called it quits at 9 p.m., though some of us stayed in the classroom until 10 to try to get an API call to work.
Writing code can be an intensely individual and isolating experience. At times I forgot I was supposed to be at a summer program with other people, because I was so fixated on internal issues. You know, standard teen girl questions like “does this top match this skirt?” and “should I train a new neural net, or modify a built-in classifier and my data to work together?”
Wolfram’s language, Mathematica, was a new experience. I simply could not get my basic web-scraping iterator (a wee program to go through a list of websites and pull information from them) to work. More frustrating was how I could visualize exactly how to do it in Python, an object-oriented programming language. This was the core struggle that I and many of my peers faced at camp. All of us had coded before, mostly in Python or Java, so our brains had been trained for what’s known as object-oriented programming (OOP), which is centered around creating things (fancy custom variables, known as classes) and then doing things with those things, like putting them together, or counting them, or querying them in a database. It’s like if you’ve only used a Mac your whole life, and then suddenly you land a job at an office entirely running Windows 10. You know how to use a computer, or at least you thought you did, but you can’t find where your files are stored, or how you’re supposed to reconfigure your wifi settings, and it’s all the more frustrating because you know exactly how to do the task in two seconds on a Mac. Your agony is actually worse than if someone who had never used a laptop before was plopped in front of that Windows 10 computer, because they don’t have habits and impulses impeding their ability to acclimate to what is supposed to be a decently quick and painless learning experience.
Case in point: There was one girl at camp, Stephanie, who had only done HTML/CSS previously (neither a functional nor object-oriented language). She totally crushed the game. Her project was cool as hell. Stephanie was not sitting around, asking how to instantiate a double for-loop to iterate over an array (OOP jargon), like I was.
I was among fourteen girls at camp, or roughly 35 percent of campers. We Wolframmettes were not the dowdy dweebettes of nerd girl stereotypes (which I’ve never seen in reality), but we were not superficial. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow Rosenberg with less witchcraft and more Snapchat filters. Most of us had been in some kind of a cruddy tech situation previously. A gross older instructor had stared at someone’s chest, or the immaturity of the boys back home in AP Computer Science had been infuriating and isolating. We knew we had to look out for one another. In many ways, WolframLand is a utopia of respect and equality—but it also felt ephemeral.
Being at summer camp means constantly feeling like you’re on the cusp of something. Wolfram spent an hour with my entire class advising us on careers, colleges, and our lives ahead. He is adamant that one does not need a college degree to be a software engineer, to the chagrin of many campers’ parents. His advice is to get into innovative fields early, because “if the field doesn’t exist yet, no one can ask you your grades studying that field.” He added that “by the time you can learn it in school, you’re probably not going to be a leading figure in it.”
Wolfram polled the room to see what we wanted to be when we were older. Many answers were somewhere in the realm of coder, programmer, or software engineer. Some were ambitious yet well-matched to the person who dreamed of them, like an astronaut/doctor combined, or a TV multihyphenate in the style of Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey (that was me, by the way. We need more art that grapples with the technological future and its creators—i.e. a Spinal Tap take on the Zucks and Musks of the world—to maybe keep the dystopias from becoming true). Other careers were a little more avant-garde. “I’d like to found a company that becomes your biggest competitor,” threatened one student. “I’d like to be Jìng-Yáng from Silicon Valley,” intoned another, somewhat facetiously.
“I’m, sorry, whom?” asked Wolfram. He has not seen a single episode of Silicon Valley. Sacrilege! “People keep telling me I need to see it, and I’ve got the episodes downloaded on my laptop, but I don’t really watch television. I’ll get to it eventually,” he told us.
Wolfram also told us he believes that the American college admissions process is partially based on dumb luck, as colleges fill out the slots they want in a class. He thinks that’s an interesting statistical phenomenon, but he also worries about the affect it has on people of my generation. Are we burning out collecting meaningless accolades? He said he was interested in sitting for an SAT, just to see what would happen. I am also deeply curious to know how this contender for the smartest person alive would do on a standardized test. Would he get caught up in the objectivity of a “what was the author’s intent in this paragraph” question? It would make thousands of hardworking high schoolers feel better about themselves, this solid proof that the SAT isn’t a real measure of intelligence, after all.
My favorite Wolfram moment is a little unusual. It was Wednesday night of the first week, when anyone interested could come to a conference room to brainstorm ideas for a new company product called “Challenges.” Forty brilliant people between the ages of 14 and 70-something, and me, were all treated by Wolfram as equal contributors. “What about the Wikipedia Game?” “Something involving blockchain?” “An API call?” I raised my hand to suggest that the challenges be given background stories to make them more relevant. On my mind was research I had read suggesting that women are more likely to stay motivated learning to code when given a real-world scenario, such as a societal impact. I got smiles and nods from the room.
This was wish fulfillment for me—contributing to the challenge of understanding computers and the people who love them, transforming the way that we computer people are portrayed to the world (as humans, not robots), and teaching computational thinking as best we can. Thanks, Steve….er, Stephen.