Game of Life

The great big game of life has a surprising counterpart in a cellular automata developed by John Conway in the 1960’s. It’s called “Game of Life.”

The gif on the left is an instance of the game. It’s called Gosper’s glider gun. Lucky for us, we can download Conway’s game from the google store.

John Conway was a mathematical genius. Born in England, he did most of work in Princeton University. I first came across Conway’s Game of Life during my graduate studies in computer science.  It was featured in Martin Gardner’s Scientific American column “Mathematical Games.”[1]

Gardner was an amazing journalist and author. His Annotated Alice [2] is one of my most favorite books, and I have gifted many copies to friends.

Today I came across a video — Mystery and Magic of Mathematics: Martin Gardner and Friends — that features both Gardner and Conway. Watch it. Well worth the time.

John Conway passed away in 2020 at age 82, a victim of the Chinese covid virus. Here’s a bit from Arstechnica:

The British-born Conway spent the early part of his career at Cambridge before moving to Princeton University in the 1980s. He made contributions in various areas of mathematics but is best known for his invention of Conway’s Game of Life, a cellular automaton in which simple rules give rise to surprisingly complex behaviors. It was made famous by a 1970 Scientific American article and has had a lively community around it ever since then. (Don’t confuse it with Milton Bradley’s board game of the same name.)

Conway’s Game of Life is played on a two-dimensional plane with square cells. Each square can be either black (“alive”) or white (“dead”). Simple deterministic rules dictate how the state of the board in one step leads to the next step. If a live square has two or three live neighbors (counting diagonals), it stays alive. If a dead cell has three live neighbors, it switches to black and becomes alive. Otherwise, the cell becomes—or stays—dead.


[1] Gardner’s column ran for 24 years, from Jan 1957 to Dec 1980, during which period he wrote 288 consecutive monthly pieces. The Oct 1970 column was titled The fantastic combinations of John Conway’s new solitaire game “life”. He followed that up with a Feb 1971 column titled On cellular automata, self-reproduction, the Garden of Eden and the game “life”.

[2] The Annotated Alice is a 1960 book by Martin Gardner incorporating the text of Lewis Carroll’s major tales, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871).


Author: Atanu Dey


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