Computer users who started out in the 80s (and programmers of all stripes) will remember all too well John Conway’s famous Game of Life. I first saw it when it arrived as free software for my 48K Sinclair ZX Spectrum, in about 1983. It was tantalising but deeply frustrating; the rules are desperately simple and yet it has almost limitless scope for complexity, if only you can find it.
Plenty of people have spent prodigious amounts of time teasing out that complexity-in-simplicity. It exists in its own semantic space of puffers, sparkers and glider guns. To some, these are forms that display key characteristics of living things; birth, development, complex interaction, death. The game has been extensively used as the tiniest of toy worlds displaying evolutionary logic.
If I couldn’t cope with Life (or, I suppose, life) I fear I’ve no chance with Avida, the evolutionary sandbox hosted by Caltech. It is available as a free download, so I’ll give it a try anyway, if only for the reassurance that proper science is forever beyond both my ken and my patience.