I had a conversation recently with a young person who was in a state of wonder and scepticism about evolution and natural selection: how could mammals have come about, what about eyeballs, etc.? Now don’t worry: I’m not about to step in front of anyone’s religious bus; we don’t go there on Slaw. No, it’s just that, as I explained to him, one source of our puzzlement is that we can’t easily imagine the effects wrought by small changes taking place an immensely large number of times. What’s a billion? to paraphrase someone whom I can’t recall at the moment. Or, to pick an example from yesterday’s news about the brewing scandal at the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, we’re told that the odds of the insiders’ having won as frequently as they have are a trillion trillion trillion to one. Oh, I say. Right. Long odds, those.
So big numbers baffle. But how then to see the impact that many, many… many small changes may bring about? One answer is the Game of Life. Developed by a British mathematician (natch) way back in 1970 (see the Wikipedia article on it) for somewhat different purposes than those I’m suggesting today. It enables us to see the impact of four simple rules on an initial state of affairs played out accross any number of “generations” of rule applications. It’s done on a grid into which you insert occupied cells in a pattern of your choice; these become your starting units — your primordial slime. (This has a fair bit to say about chaos theory, but that’s another gallimaufry.)
The game is available on the web and you can download a version to play offline. It offers you a variety of starting options, such as how large a “world” you want your “life” to develop within, how fast you want generations to zip by, and whether or not you want to begin with one of the configurations that others have discovered produce interesting results.
For me, it’s fascinating to see how objects emerge from the random input. Some of my worlds are wiped out within a measly few generations. Others freeze into stable, unchanging blocks. Some produce winking objects that I think of as quasars, while others emit offspring in a neverending supply. One of these last is a starting pattern known as Gosper’s Glider Gun (available as an initial state in the game), which produces a perpetual stream of “gliders.” I’ve borrowed an animated gif file (remember those?) from Wikipedia to show you Gosper’s discovery in action, but because these animations can be really annoying, I’ve hidden it behind the “read more” tag. So when you click on “Read more…” or “Read more right here…” you’ll see it in action.
Then go ahead. Play god. Play the Game of Life.