• U.S.

Science: Flop of the Century?

7 minute read

In the shivering cold atop Manhattan’s Empire State Building last week, a hardy band of amateur astronomers were asked by a television interviewer what they thought of Kohoutek’s comet. “Flop of the century!” they agreed unanimously. At a comet party near Chicago, Astronomer J. Allen Hynek explained away the weak drink that he was serving his 800 guests. “A fake punch for a fake comet,” he said.

The celestial object that had been widely billed as “the comet of the century” had indeed turned out to be a disappointing dud. Looking with unaided eye into the southwest sky after sunset, most observers in well-lighted, smoggy metropolitan areas could find no trace of Kohoutek. Even with binoculars, they saw only a faint smudge near the bright planets Venus and Jupiter. From their orbital vantage, the Skylab astronauts found that the comet had suddenly become bewilderingly faint; only a few days before, they had enthusiastically described it as glowing “yellow and orange, just like a flame.”

Sticky Glue. Some NASA astronomers speculated that the sun’s heat might have baked the comet’s exterior into a kind of “sticky glue” that prevented some of the cometary dust and gas from boiling off. University of Arizona Astronomer Elizabeth Roemer, for one, found this theory improbable. Comets, she explained, are too gaseous and fragile to develop such a crust. Other astronomers suggested that Kohoutek, a “virgin” comet making its first approach to the inner part of the solar system and never before exposed to the warmth of the sun, had flared up briefly when its more volatile materials boiled off. It was that early glow, observed when the comet was still as far away as Jupiter, that raised astronomers’ expectations.

For all its fadeout from public view, Comet Kohoutek was far from a scientific disappointment. About a month after they had detected methyl cyanide molecules in the comet’s head, radio astronomers atop Kitt Peak last week reported picking up the “signature” of hydrogen cyanide molecules in radio waves from Kohoutek. The discovery has dual significance. Both molecules have been found in the clouds of gases and dust in the vast reaches between the stars; thus their presence in the comet lends strong support to the theory that comets were formed from the same interstellar material out of which the solar system was born. In addition, because both molecules decompose into simpler molecules unless they are frozen, their detection helps confirm the most commonly accepted idea about comets: they are little more than giant icebergs made up of frozen gases and dust.

The Game of Life

Computer time is a precious commodity to scientists and engineers; the speed and capacious memory of the giant electronic brains are vital to operations as varied as space navigation and supermarket inventory control. Yet despite the crush at major computer centers on both sides of the Atlantic, more and more expensive computer time these days is being devoted to a deceptively simple game called “Life.” Unlike most games, Life does not require an opponent; it is played not to win but to provide participants with an endless series of unexpected patterns that often seem to have a life of their own.

Genetic Laws. Computer specialists everywhere have developed such a mania for Life that millions of dollars in illicit computer time may have already been wasted by the game’s growing number of addicts. This week Life reached maturity when a paper discussing its problems and potential was on the agenda at a major computer conference in Washington, D.C.

Invented in 1970 by a Cambridge University mathematician named John Horton Conway and popularized by Mathematical Games Expert Martin Gardner in the pages of Scientific American, Life is a kind of solitaire played by one person on a checkerboard or graph paper, or indeed any gridlike field that contains adjoining squares of equal size. The playing pieces, or counters, are chips (any number) that are placed at random on squares across the board. They are then manipulated by what Conway calls his three “genetic laws”—for birth, death and survival. Under the Law of Birth, each empty square adjoined by three—no more, no fewer—counters on neighboring squares will yield a new counter in the next move, or “generation.” Thus configuration 1 becomes 2. The Law of Death is more complex. Each counter with only one piece, or none, ajacent to it dies of isolation and is removed. Thus 3 becomes 4 and in the next generation 5. In addition, each counter with four or more immediate neighbors dies of overpopulation, as in 6, which becomes 7.* Under the Law of Survival, where conditions do not lead to either birth or death, each counter with two or three neighbors simply survives, as in configuration 8.

When all of the laws have been applied to the first placement of the chips, the move, or generation, is completed. Then the next generation applies the laws of Life to the newly formed pattern. The game goes on through a succession of generations until all of the pieces die off, a stable pattern is reached, or the counters can move no further because of limits of the board.

Though Life is rewarding enough when played manually, it takes on an added dimension when played on the computer, which causes the varied patterns to unfold much more rapidly. The computer can either place the counters at random or follow the operator’s placement instructions. Readily programmed to obey Life’s rules, it can then perform the necessary calculations in a flash and display the changing patterns on a cathode ray tube, providing a remarkable kaleidoscopic show. Sometimes the counters quickly settle into what Conway calls “still lifes” — stable, unchanging figures, including those known in the game’s already rich jargon as “bee hives,” 9, “snakes,” 10 or “long ships,” 11 . At other times the patterns may pulse, like the “traffic lights,” which flip-flop between patterns 12 and 13. Other figures, including “gliders” and “spaceships,” actually move across the board. Some seem to leave clouds of debris behind in their travels (“puffer trains”) or climb in a diagonal line (“fuses”) and give off clusters of “sparks.” One of the more unusual shapes to emerge in Life’s repertory of patterns is the “Cheshire cat,” 1 4. It gradually changes and shrinks until, after six genertions, only the “grin,” 15, is left. Finally it reaches a stable pattern: a “paw print,” 1 6.

Countless computers from Cambridge to M.I.T. to Caltech have been programmed to play Life, sometimes to the chagrin of those in charge of the costly machines. Martin Gardner tells of one computer specialist who has a special panic button under his desk: whenever a supervisor comes into the room, the specialist can wipe the display screen clean; later, after the supervisor has left, the computer can reach into its memory and pick up the game exactly where it left off. Nor are Americans or Britons the only ones addicted. Gardner has gotten inquiries about Life from as far off as Moscow, New Delhi and Tokyo.

Primordial Broth. Enthusiasm is so high that “lifenatics” have taken to exchanging their discoveries in a quarterly newsletter, “Lifeline,” published by Life Buff Robert T. Wainwright, a computer specialist in Wilton, Conn. Sample report: “I wanted to find a pattern that would blow up, a bomb that creates a spectacular explosion when the lit fuse burns down.” Wainwright himself works hard in his spare time on extending the limits of Life. The paper he presented at this week’s 1974 Winter Simulation Conference discussed how the game can imitate creation. Acting like molecules in the primordial broth out of which real life may have originated on the young Earth, some Life forms actually yield self-replicating patterns that continue to reproduce as long as there is space for them to grow.

*In actual play, this variation would also result in the creation of two new counters (shown in different colors) under the simultaneous operation of the Law of Birth.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com