In just over a day, a powerful computer program accomplished a feat that took physicists centuries to complete: extrapolating the laws of motion from a pendulum's swings.
Developed by Cornell researchers, the program deduced the natural laws without a shred of knowledge about physics or geometry.
The research is being heralded as a potential breakthrough for science in the Petabyte Age, where computers try to find regularities in massive datasets that are too big and complex for the human mind.
The program started with near-random combinations of basic mathematical processes — addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and a few algebraic operators.
Initially, the equations generated by the program failed to explain the data, but some failures were slightly less wrong than others. Using a genetic algorithm, the program modified the most promising failures, tested them again, chose the best, and repeated the process until a set of equations evolved to describe the systems. Turns out, some of these equations were very familiar: the law of conservation of momentum, and Newton's second law of motion.
"It's a powerful approach," said University of Michigan computer scientist Martha Pollack, with "the potential to apply to any type of dynamical system." As possible fields of application, Pollack named environmental systems, weather patterns, population genetics, cosmology and oceanography. "Just about any natural science has the type of structure that would be amenable," she said.