The origins of Life can be traced back to the 1940’s when American mathematician John Von Neumann began exploring the idea of a universal constructor; a program that has the ability to process data and automatically replicate itself. To explore this problem, Von Neumann created a discrete game for which each generation’s cell state is determined by the neighboring cell’s status on a two-dimensional grid of square cells for which each cell could have as many as 29 different states. This universal constructor fascinated British mathematician John Conway, and caused him to begin doing his own research on another computable discrete universe based on Alan Turing’s notion of a “universal computer”; a machine capable of imitating any computational process through implementations based on a set of short instructions. Thus Conway began his search for a simplified set of rules and states, a “simple universe” capable of computation. After experimenting with various setups on a two-dimensional grid, he found a suitable set of rules that achieved a balance between extinction and infinite cellular expansion and he named these rules the Game of Life.

In the October 1970 issue of Scientific American, an article was published which described the game and provided challenges to the readers. This article in the nation’s premier scientific source popularized Conway’s findings throughout the scientific community and thus lead to the rapid development in the exploration of Life and as it applies to other fields of cellular automata. With the advent of the computer age, and the development of more powerful computers, thanks to Moore’s Law and advances in processor design, the Life universe has continued to intrigue and perplex minds all across the globe as it expands in the discovery of new exciting configurations and oscillators and also as the number of possible applications increases.

The Game of Life is not a traditional “game.” There are no winners or losers in Life nor are there any set objectives or strategies to achieve victory. It is not a board game or video game, but this does not mean that it was poorly designed. Rather to the contrary, it is a wonderfully designed and extremely fascinating game that has the potential to explain questions as vast as the emergence of life.

Conway’s Life
John Horton Conway was born in Liverpool England in 1937. Even at a young age, Conway expressed immense talent in the fields of mathematics. He went to college at the University of Cambridge where he studied number theory and logic, and eventually became a mathematics professor there. Conway wrote numerous books including Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays. Conway’s numerous contributions to mathematics include the study of principles underlying finite and transfinite numbers, symmetries of geometric objects, and cellular automata including the creation of the Game of Life. Later, Conway moved to teach mathematics at Princeton University, where he currently resides.