Does John Conway Hate Life?
Written by Lucy Black   
Thursday, 06 March 2014

Conway's game of Life is huge among programmers and mathematicians alike. It has generated a community of "Lifers" dedicated to constructing whole worlds in Life and investigating it as if it was a universe of its own. And yet, in this new video, John Conway, its inventor admits to hating it....

You can see his point.

Conway is a talented mathematician with lots of other, arguably more important, results, inventions and insights and they are all overshadowed by his creation of the cellular automata we call Life. Like a serious musician who has become famous for a TV jingle Conway wishes it wasn't so.

The good news is that he admits that he has mellowed over the years and now looks upon Life as perhaps his idea that made the most impact. 

Numberphile, a non-profit supported by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, has issued two videos based on an interview by Brady Haran with John Conway. As the first explains Life  is perhaps the less interesting if you already familiar with it, but watch it for the comments at the start about Conway's feeling about his great invention and the fact that he wished he'd called the glider the ant. The final two or three minutes also sums up the story of how we found out some of the properties of the game - and don't miss the touching admission at the very very end....

 

 

Did the offer of a $50 prize really motivate Bill Gosper to invent the Glider Gun - sorry Ant Gun, perhaps it's a good thing that he called it a Glider.

 

glider

The glider - it could have been called The Ant!

 

The second video from the interview is more interesting if you want to know how Conway thought up Life. The history involves Von Neumann and his attempt to design a self replicating computer and the search for a simple set of rules that gave rise to interesting and unpredictable behaviour. At the time Conway had no access to computers and so tried things out on a Go board! Time to watch:

 

 

 It is sad to hear him say 

"From my point of view though, it wasn't real mathematics ... I personally didn't think all that much of it."

and in response to the question if it had been build upon in the sense that it took mathematics forward he says

"No it's finished.... Nothing I think that followed on it was just as interesting as the basic fact that this set of rules did exist, fairly simple, and have these astonishing properties."

Anyone who knows some complexity theory would disagree and point out that Life and its related cellular automata have led to lots of new research ithat is beginning to have an impact on areas of science from biology to economics.

One encouraging quote:

"I sit in a corridor in the mathematics department in Princeton and I think about things and I imagine that the young graduate students think "oh this guy is a loony he did something good once", and I really don't care"

 

 lifeglider

 

More Information

If you want to know more about what Conway did in the fields of mathematics and physics and perhaps understand why for him the gam of Life doesn't seem that important see his Wikipedia page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Horton_Conway

Numberphile

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