John Conway, a mathematician who substantially contributed to numerous fields of study but was most known as the creator and namesake of Conway’s Game of Life, passed away last Saturday due to complications from COVID-19.
As is seemingly often the case for any person of stature most known for just a single piece of work out of many—to the point where it casts a long shadow over anything else they have done or have still yet to do—he was conflicted over being “the Game of Life guy” to most people. However, though its substance in terms of being a contribution to academia may very well be dwarfed by many of his other accomplishments, the Game of Life nonetheless did something else of great value for mathematics and computer science: It made them accessible and fun for the world at large.
Accessible to, for example, me. I distinctly remember that as a kid, one of the programs that I could find on the computers from the mid-1990's—my family’s Windows 95 or Windows 98 desktops, one of the Macintoshes they’d have in elementary school, I don’t remember precisely which one, but definitely at least one of them—was the Game of Life.
Its was this low-key and thoroughly abstract piece of weirdness, yet it roped me right in. There was something oddly satisfying about tinkering with it. Plop some cells on the grid in fun shapes or totally at random, press play, and watch how it evolves, step by step. It’s a fascinating experience, like setting up a contraption with no idea if it would work or not, combined with the sensation of witnessing generations’ worth of life and death in a rapid time lapse.
In retrospect, I am pretty sure it laid down one of the foundations towards eventually pursuing both computer science and mathematics, to varying degrees, as my main subjects of study from the end of high school through college.
Sure, I had already been very much into video games at 6 or 7 years old, and even experienced the joys of simulations through games like SimCity by then. But games like that were all about infrastructure and finances, or goombas and koopa troopas. About things. Things that may or may not be real, but nonetheless were all concrete.
The Game of Life, on the other hand, was my first taste of a simulation that was completely abstract. I could use my imagination to invent some kind of story for it all, but this game doesn’t impart any narrative or conceptual meaning of its own to the dots on the grid, nor to the grid itself. It’s not fundamentally really about any thing specifically.
Yet I still had fun. Joy and surprise, it turned out, could even be found in the abstract.
Jump ahead a decade, and I’m about to embark on a college career littered with variables, functions, classes, derivatives, integrals, ifs and elses, loops, arrays, propositions, data structures, and so on and so forth. Would I seriously end up finding these things—these dry, obtuse things—to be enjoyable?
Well, yes! And it may very well have been one of John Conway’s curiosities—one minor blip in the span of a prolific mathematician’s career—which showed me, at a very young age, that such things could be enjoyable in the first place.
For that, I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Innumerable others—whether for also counting it as a gateway to their fields of study, or as part of the community that’s still doggedly analyzing and ripping apart and discovering new things about this one single form of cellular automata with the verve and passion of a speedrunner—surely do as well. He will be missed.
Oh, by the way: That system from the thumbnail? It ends up stable sometime shortly after the 900th generation.