The mathematician John Horton Conway has died, apparently due to the covid-19 epidemic, at the age of 82. I never met him but by all accounts, he was a delightful person and brilliant mathematician; his charming book on introductory game theory, Winning Ways, is the most fun you can have reading a university level math text. I had just purchased a biography, Genius at Play, before the crisis began and I suppose I’ll have time to read it now.
I’m sad, of course; we are all diminished when we lose a delightful and brilliant teacher. I’m also angry at the frankly disgusting attitude I see in the media and in the actions of elected officials that it is somehow no great loss to society when a disease predominantly kills the elderly. Scrooge’s they had better die and reduce the surplus population was meant to be taken as the horrifyingly Malthusian ranting of a bitter, foolish man who ought to know better, not as words to live by.
But I don’t intend this to be another rant as to the utter, abject, criminal stupidity that has informed the response to this pandemic. Rather: I have been wanting for over a decade to write a series on my blog about Conway’s most famous invention (I almost said discovery, because it seems like such a natural part of my world), Conway’s Game of Life. Now seems like a good time.
When I was a teenager I collected back issues of Scientific American — mostly from the sadly now gone Casablanca Books in my home town. Lots of the articles were interesting, but mostly I wanted a set of all the Martin Gardner, Kee Dewdney and Douglas Hofstadter’s monthly columns on mathematics and programming.
ASIDE: A note to any teenagers reading this who are collecting bulky old stuff like me. Keep it. When I moved across country I took my National Geographics and Tolkien biographies, but I sold my SciAms and Doctor Who novelizations for pennies on the dollar because they were bulky and I figured I wouldn’t miss them. And now only 25 years later I wish I still had those memorabilia.
I kept photocopies of Gardner’s articles on Life in 1970 and 1971 that introduced the phenomenon to the world. I find it fascinating to think about how Conway and the other people who made initial discoveries must have worked, without fast computers and fancy graphics; Conway said in the original 1970 article “it is marvelous to sit watching on the computer screen”, so there must have been some graphical system, but I can only imagine that it was quite primitive.
Over the next few weeks I’ll recapitulate my own experience with Life, though with much better hardware, software, and coding skills than my initial forays on my Amiga 500 as a teenager. We’ll start with the basics and work our way up to an astonishing result: it is possible to compute trillions of generations per second on Life boards with trillions of cells using an ordinary desktop computer.
I have learned recently that Conway did not consider Life to be the important work that he wanted to be remembered for — though I must say, if there’s something you don’t want to be remembered for, maybe don’t spend a decade popularizing it — but Life is for the ages; it will outlive us all. Early exposure to Life made me think about programming in ways I had not before, and I am grateful to John Conway for giving me and so many others that inspiration. I’ll leave it to my mathematical betters to remember his lasting contributions to professional mathematics.
Next time on FAIC: We’ll begin at the beginning with the rules of the game and some straightforward implementations.