Renowned mathematician and beloved Princeton University professor, John Horton Conway, died this week (April 11) of COVID-19. He was 82. Conway is best known as the inventor of the hugely influential and inspirational artificial life program, The Game of Life.
From the Princeton obit:
“John Conway was an amazing mathematician, game wizard, polymath and storyteller who left an indelible mark on everyone he encountered — colleagues, students and beyond — inspiring the popular imagination just as he unraveled some of the deepest mathematical mysteries,” said Igor Rodnianski, professor of mathematics and chair of the Department of Mathematics. “His childlike curiosity was perfectly complemented by his scientific originality and the depth of his thinking. It is a great loss for us and for the entire mathematical world.”
Over his long career, Conway made significant contributions to mathematics in the fields of group theory, number theory, algebra, geometric topology, theoretical physics, combinatorial game theory and geometry.
The jacket to Siobhan Roberts' biography of Conway describes him as:
"Archimedes, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Richard Feynman all rolled into one -- a singular mathematician, with a rock star's charisma, a sly sense of humor, a polymath's promiscuous curiosity, and a burning desire to explain everything about the world to everyone in it."
It is so sad to have lost him and doubly sad how little I've seen about his passing. I guess that's one of the many tragic dimensions of dying in the grim sweep of a pandemic.
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Love Hultén, who makes retrofuturistic game consoles, built this thing called an EvoBoxx, which lets you play mathematician John Horton Conway's Game of Life, a cellular automaton he devised in 1970. "The game is a zero-player game," writes Hultén, "meaning that its evolution is determined by its initial state, requiring no further input. One interacts with the Game of Life by creating an initial configuration and observing how it evolves, or, for advanced players, by creating patterns with particular properties."
If you don't have an EvoBoxx, you can play The Game of Life here.
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The game designer and artist Yifat Shaik has just released "The Workplace Saga", a video game based on Conway's "Game of Life" ruleset that runs in Excel as a set of macros.
It's an ingenious and lovely way of blending the metaphoric payload of Conway's game (from very simple rules comes complex, gorgeous behavior) with the metaphoric payload of the corporate spreadsheet, which is somewhat the reverse: An attempt to impose order and sanity on the complex mess of everyday reality.
I've often thought that digital spreadsheets are some of the most consequential pieces of software ever created. When I suggested this recently on Twitter, Steven Levy pointed me to a fantastic essay he wrote 30 years ago called "A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge". As he pointed out in that 1984 piece, spreadsheets were allowing everyday worker bees to create models and conduct "what if" experiments with a sophistication previously impossible. The models were often commercially useful (what would happen if we made 35% more widgets at 15% lower cost compared to 80% more widgets at 32% lower cost?) ... but Levy's interviewees also talked about the rich pleasures of model-making itself, quite apart from their subject matter:
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Spreadsheet models have become a form of expression, and the very act of creating them seem to yield a pleasure unrelated to their utility. Unusual models are duplicated and passed around; these templates are sometimes used by other modelers and sometimes only admired for their elegance.
Conway's Game of Life—the OG cellular automaton toy—is put in three dimensions by Samuel Levy. You can spin the playfield as it mutates, too! It beat the hell out of my computer on the higher settings, though.
Cells (in this case, cubes) with only 1 or less neighbours die, as if by lonliness.
If 5 cells surround an empty cell, they breed and fill it.
If a cell has 8 or more neighbours, it dies from overcrowding.
Strictly speaking, that means it's not the Game of Life but a more elaborate automaton. The results are rather obscure, visually, to me, in this particular setup. I hope this gets expanded to allow for more experimenting with rules. Read the rest
Noah writes, "Fabienne Serriere, a hacker and machine knitting enthusiast, is running a Kickstarter currently for provably unique mathematical scarves modeled off of cellular automaton and made of Merino wool.
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Science historian and perennial Boing Boing favorite George Dyson's latest book is Turing's Cathedral, and it is, in some sense, the book he was born (or at least raised) to write. Dyson, the son of eminent scientist Freeman Dyson, was brought up on the grounds of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies during the period when the Institute's cadre of scientists (who included Einstein and Godel) were in the midst of building and operating the first digital computers, under the direction of John von Neumann. George Dyson grew up among these scientists and their children, and witnessed much of this historic period firsthand. He has made a distinguished career out of documenting the remarkable imaginations and scientific acumen of the physicists, rocket scientists, mathematicians, polymaths and engineers who were involved in the R&D swirl that birthed rocketry, computing, radar, weather prediction, and nuclear weapons.
With Turing's Cathedral, Dyson combines his prodigious skills as a historian and writer with his privileged position within the Institute's history to present a vivid account of the digital computer project and the curious circumstances -- the World Wars, the curious nature of the multidisciplinary Princeton Institute, and the odd personalities of the people involved -- that combined to make the computer described by Turing into a reality that could be assembled and run in a building in New Jersey.
Dyson unravels the personal histories of the great personalities of the project, from household names like Turing and von Neumann and Godel to the largely unsung contributions of the likes of Julian Bigelow, Oswald Veblen, Klari von Neumann and Stan Ulam. Read the rest