Chapter 6. Game of Life

In this chapter we consider two-dimensional cellular automatons, especially John Conway’s Game of Life (GoL). Like some of the 1-D CAs in the previous chapter, GoL follows simple rules and produces surprisingly complicated behavior. And like Wolfram’s Rule 110, GoL turns out to be universal; that is, it can compute any computable function, at least in theory.

Complex behavior in GoL raises issues in the philosophy of science, particularly related to scientific realism and instrumentalism. I discuss these issues and suggest additional reading.

At the end of the chapter, I demonstrate ways to implement GoL efficiently in Python.

Conway’s GoL

One of the first cellular automatons to be studied, and probably the most popular of all time, is a 2-D CA called “The Game of Life”, or GoL for short. It was developed by John H. Conway and popularized in 1970 in Martin Gardner’s column in Scientific American. See https://thinkcomplex.com/gol.

The cells in GoL are arranged in a 2-D grid, that is, an array of rows and columns. Usually the grid is considered to be infinite, but in practice it is often “wrapped”; that is, the right edge is connected to the left, and the top edge to the bottom.

Each cell in the grid has two states—live and dead—and 8 neighbors—north, south, east, west, and the four diagonals. This set of neighbors is sometimes called a “Moore neighborhood”.

Like the 1-D CAs in the previous chapters, GoL evolves over time according to rules, which are like simple ...

Get Think Complexity, 2nd Edition now with O’Reilly online learning.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from 200+ publishers.