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RIP Game of Life Creator

John Horton Conway was the originator of the Game of Life, which dragged the concept of cellular automata kicking and screaming out of academia and into the real world.

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I never got to meet the English mathematician John Horton Conway, who was born 26 December 1937 in Liverpool, England, and who sadly passed away from the coronavirus on 11 April 2020. From all accounts, Conway was something of a character, being described as “Archimedes, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Richard Feynman all rolled into one.”
Graphical depiction of the game of life (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: Max Maxfield)
If you haven’t yet read it and you are interested in biographies, I really enjoyed Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts. Quite apart from anything else, this was the first time I’d heard about surreal numbers, which were one of Conway’s many contributions to (a) mathematics in general and (b) making my head hurt in particular. As it says on the Wikipedia, “If formulated in Von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory, the surreal numbers are a universal ordered field in the sense that all other ordered fields, such as the rationals, the reals, the rational functions, the Levi-Civita field, the superreal numbers, and the hyperreal numbers, can be realized as subfields of the surreals.” Well, duh! Most of the things Conway did are known to only relatively few people and understood by even fewer. Having said this, Conway was also the originator of the Game of Life, which dragged the concept of cellular automata kicking and screaming out of academia and led to numerous computer programmers squandering countless hours of personal and computing time. If you want to know more about the Game of Life, check out my FPGAs 1, MCUs 0 column. And if you want to discover more about cellular automata in general, including videos of the Game of Life, Langton’s ant (which was invented by Chris Langton in 1986), and Boids (which was invented by Craig Reynolds in 1986), then check out my Artificial Life Simulations column. Last but certainly not least, if you want to get a better feel for who John Horton Conway was and his contributions to the field of human knowledge, my chum Jay Dowling sent me a link to this video of a terrific Numberphile Podcast.  
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’ve heard of Numberphile, which is an educational channel on YouTube that explores topics from a variety of mathematical fields. Every one of their videos I’ve seen thus far has left me saying, “Well, I never knew that!” According to the Wikipedia, the channel has received 445 million total views thus far, which isn’t too shabby for a show on math. After you’ve watched the video on Conway, it would be great if you decided to take a little time to peruse and ponder the Numberphile channel, and then post a comment with links to your favorite episodes. Until then, all I can say is RIP John Horton Conway.

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He was one of those great characters. I’ve been lucky to meet a few others. One who sticks in my mind is Professor R.V. Jones, who headed Scientific intelligence in WWII. I organised a talk by him in the late ’80s, the only talk I’ve ever known the speaker give a 20 minute encore, and with an attendance well beyond standing room only.


I went out for dinner with him afterwards. It was an awesome evening (Manchester IEE Younger members)

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