September 22: John Conway (1937-2020)
The inventor of the Game of Life
John Horton Conway, who died last April aged 82, was always a little disappointed that what most people associated with his name was not one of his elegant and difficult mathematical discoveries, the surreal numbers of the Conway chained arrow notation, but a little, quite pointless game.
Publicised in Martin Gardner’s column in Scientific American, the Game of Life consists of a number of cells that ‘live’ or ‘die’ following a handful of simple rules. A live cell with two or three live neighbours survives; a place on the board with exactly three cells surrounding it becomes a live cell; and all other live cells die in the next generation. These rules produce a surprising wealth of different multi-cellular shapes on the game board: loaves, beehives, boats and tubs, blinkers, gliders, and a whole fleet of spaceships that fly across the board. Some patterns give rise to little patterns that leave the nest and crawl out into empty space, while others move resembling the jump of a knight in chess. Some even can replicate themselves and thus exhibit the most essential feature of life.
The Game of Life is rather pointless as a game, as there is nothing to win and no players. It’s rather like an evolutionary adventure, the programmer being a god in their own universe, creating life and looking at it thrive over the simulated ages.
The game has popularised a whole field of study: cellular automata. Algorithms very similar to Conway’s, can be used to describe many processes of growth and coordination, and even the coordinated flight of bird flocks. And one day, we might perhaps find something like Conway’s automata on other planets, and we might wonder: Is it life?