The perspective of time, galaxy formation and Conway’s Game of Life.

It’s commonly known that a fresh perspective on an old topic can bring new insights.  Only recently, though, have I thought about changing the perspective of time as a way to gain these insights.

There seems to be an internet phenomenon these days where a piece of music is stretched over an interval much longer than its original recorded time.  Never having even considered what this might be like, I was amazed at how different a song becomes when stretched.  It doesn’t simply take longer to hear, but actually takes on a new quality, apart from its length.  NPR.org describes it as a cosmic and ethereal, which is fitting because what inspired me to write this post was not the way time affects perspective when music is stretched, but rather the way time affects perspective when a simulated galaxy in formation is compressed.

It’s cool watching simulated gravity work its simulated magic at time-lapse speed — really gives you feel for how dynamic the universe and galaxy formation actually is.  What’s interesting to me, apart from watching the effects of gravity at high speed, is how the whole process seems analogous, albeit much more complicated, to the processes that occur on a Conway’s Game of Life board — something I might not have noticed if it weren’t for my new time-changed perspective.

If you happen to be unfamiliar with mathematician John Conway’s Game of Life, you should click that last link, if you haven’t already done so.  Actually, do it regardless.  There’s nothing wrong with observing  how a few simple rules can give rise to a multitude of complexities.  If you spread a healthy dose of random pixels across the board and then run it at its fastest speed you’ll notice that over time, areas that were once volatile tend to stabilize in specific patterns.  In the galaxy formation video, things seem to stabilize at the 2:02 mark when the simulation begins to resemble our own galaxy at present time.  In Conway’s Game of Life these stabilized patterns are frequently referred to as “creatures” and are given all sorts of wacky names.  On a board with limited space, it’s typical to see only the few creatures that have the highest probability to develop, whereas on a hypothetically infinite board you would expect to eventually see all possible creatures manifested — that is to say, all possible creatures that can, in fact exist, including the ones that pop up with very little frequency.  Game of Life enthusiasts have of course searched for and created some of these possible creatures — skip to 1:16 to view some of them or watch from the beginning to get a better grasp of how the Game of Life works.


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