John Horton Conway with polyhedral models in his Princeton U. office, 1993 (photo by Dith Pran for The New York Times)
Covid-19 killed 13,000+ people last week, according to data from The Covid Tracking Project. Among them was John Horton Conway.
At times, Conway bemoaned the popularity of his game — over his numerous other achievements in pure mathematics. Although you can also find plenty of interviews where he patiently explains the rules and implications of LIFE.
Like many, I’d first learned of Conway (and “LIFE”), when I read Stephen Levy’s book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.
He’d described how students, working with mainframe computers at M.I.T. in the 1970s, became completely absorbed in Conway’s so-called game. Rereading that passage now, the rules of LIFE (highlighted below) now remind me of social distancing. Six feet apart vs. six feet under.
The principle of isolation and crowding in LIFE
LIFE was a game, a computer simulation developed by John Conway, a distinguished British mathematician. It was first described by Martin Gardner, in his “Mathematical Games” column in the October 1970 issue of Scientific American. The game consists of markers on a checkerboard-like field, each marker representing a “cell.” The pattern of cells changes with each move in the game (called a “generation”) depending on a few simple rules—cells die, are born, or survive to the next generation according to how many neighboring cells are in the vicinity. The principle is that isolated cells die of loneliness, and crowded cells die from overpopulation …
[Bill] Gosper first saw the game when he came into the lab … and found two hackers fooling around with it on the PDP-6. He watched for a while. …Then he watched the patterns take shape a while longer. Gosper …appreciated how the specific bandwidth of the human eyeball could interpret patterns; he would often use weird algorithms to generate a display based on mathematical computations. What would appear to be random numbers on paper could be brought to life on a computer screen. A certain order could be discerned, an order that would change in an interesting way if you took the algorithm a few iterations further, or alternated the X and y patterns. It was soon clear to Gosper that LIFE presented these possibilities and more. He began working with a few AI workers to hack LIFE in an extremely serious way. He was to do almost nothing else for the next eighteen months.
It’s ironic, of course, that, because of the game’s analogies to life and death, it now seems inevitable that LIFE (the game) should figure so prominently in Conway’s online epitaph. [Read more…]