Implementing Conway’s Game of Life

There’s a phenomenon when a famous writer, musician or artist dies that upon the news of their passing, their works experience a rise in popularity. I don’t know if I’m proud of it (or whether I should be proud of it) but I do this also.

Recently the mathematician John Conway passed away, succumbing to the COVID-19 virus, taken before his time: https://www.wired.com/story/the-legacy-of-math-luminary-john-conway-lost-to-covid-19/

At the same time, I had taken out the Python Playground book from the public library, with the ambitious intention to read it cover to cover. This didn’t happen and I had to return the book to the library, hopefully for some other soul with more time and motivation to read. In an act of stubbornness, I did then go and buy the ebook, with a secret promise to myself that I would read it some day.

One of the chapters that really caught my attention in the book was the one about implementing the “Game of Life”, a famous example of a computer simulation that I had only previously briefly heard about and never tried to implement. The simulation was created by John Conway.

On hearing of his death, I put aside any thoughts of studiously reading every page and trying every example and instead focused on just completing the chapter implementing the game of life. By this time in my life, I had heard so much about this algorithm that it had reached mythical status in my mind. I had expected and mentally prepared myself for several days of trying to implement and understand the code and the algorithm.

Unsurprisingly to people that have implemented the “Game of Life” themselves I read through and finished the code example in about an hour.

Conway’s Game of Life

Then it hit me as to why this was so special and interesting. This whole “Game of Life” which had become ginormous in my mind was actually just a relatively small set of rules imposed a large number of times on an “unlimited” space. The beauty and lesson wasn’t in the complexity of the system, but of the simplicity of it and how it could lead to complex behaviour.

I feel bad that I had let it build up so much in my mind. I feel bad that it took John Conway dying for me to actually just try implementing the game. I am really glad I did though. Life is full of things we know we “should” do or look into or things that we want to know or look into. Unfortunately, we are not invincible and we don’t know when our time will be up. Seemingly small things that we’ve always wanted to do are important to find time for before it’s too late.

What’s your “Game of Life”?

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