Stephen Wolfram’s asteroid hunt

By Nina Somerville, BBC News

The second planet of the solar system is believed to be larger than Earth The man whose mission to explore Mars has taken him to the depths of the ocean and into unexplored territories around Pluto, Stephen Wolfram does something else remarkable in his job. Above his desk in London he displays what he calls his “bio-erasable” work. In the world of computer science he has written algorithms capable of being applied to the bizarre rocks and icy objects covered with water and greenhouse gases on Mars, the far east of the asteroid belt and asteroids hurtling towards Earth. In a respect, his algorithm takes it a step further, allowing it to manipulate radioactive material on Earth. Stephen’s fascination for space began when he was a young boy. He has written more than 50 scientific papers exploring the possibilities of marrying artificial intelligence with the most unusual of these worlds. “My childhood was quite regular, I went to a nice school, and I did very well there and eventually went on to study engineering at Oxford. But I really love to do science stuff, and life was not about me. “When I was about 15 or 16 I asked my father for a telescope, then a few years later I left school and tried to get a job in the space industry. In a sense I was going from 13 to a school. “It was really an odd coincidence that I realised I could actually combine both worlds.” When not doing science at Oxford he tried to find ways of achieving better working conditions, mainly a way of running a company. “I thought, if this is what I am doing with my life then I ought to have a bit of control over it,” he says. Money troubles As he got to know the great minds at Oxford, he says his money troubles were minimal and he almost always got a job when he wanted one. “The director of my company at one point said: ‘What’s stopping you? There’s work everywhere.’ It was a really difficult time for me,” he recalls. “But then he turned round and said: ‘But you seem to be getting through it with one salary, do you really want to spend your life with one salary?’ “I just took out the yearly salary and put it in an account at Lambeth Bank. I had several jobs at once and a good adviser.” So how did he become an environment expert when he left Oxford and began what he terms “our dream journey into space”? His “basic” area of concentration is solid state physics, which he says has “the coolest stuff on Earth”. One of his most ambitious theoretical programmes focuses on whether water should be considered a liquid or a solid, which is an important consideration to whether a plant could be grown in space. Although some three dozen scientific papers have been published on this subject by more than 20 researchers, Stephen has been able to complete only two. “The public have as yet not been appreciative of the potential of space for life,” he says. “We are finding this in the water ice which lies in the asteroid belt.” “We want to see if life exists in the inner solar system. This is not just a quest for spare energy, but also exploring the possibility of the freezing of water in space so that it might be used for plants. “There is already speculation over whether life could exist in deep space as gases may be produced in the process of the solar wind heating the mantle of the moon to make the ice. This means even if the ice does not come out as water, it may be able to serve as a platform for growing plants. What makes the subject so exciting is the uncertainty over what is actually happening.” But despite his obvious enthusiasm for space, Stephen recognises that he is just one of thousands of scientists attempting to answer some of these questions. He is a true believer in the power of a journey into an unexplored world, but says everyone should do as much research as they can while they are in the position they are in. “I’m not sure a person of my age should be so down to earth,” he says. “These are hard questions to answer, but what you are able to do is just to add what you have to your understanding of these things. “The general view of using these resources at scale for humanity is very important. “It’s also the hope that your knowledge will be of value to other people.” By Nina Somerville

Nina Somerville is BBC News’ science correspondent

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