CELL OUT

A UK train station’s tribute to a famous mathematician got everything right except his math

A new train station opened last month in the British university town of Cambridge. In promotional materials for the new station, both the building’s architect and its operating company said the striking aluminum façade was inspired by the Game of Life, the famous mathematical model created by former Cambridge University professor John Conway in 1970.

Quartz reached Conway at Princeton University, where he has been a professor (now emeritus) since 1987. He said he hadn’t been asked about the station design, and hadn’t seen the new building. After reviewing photographs of the building, he had one response for those claiming it is based on his mathematical model: “They’re wrong.”

The Game of Life is the most famous example of a cellular automaton, a grid of cells that can expand infinitely according to a set of fixed rules. (To see what we mean, go to Google, type in “Conway’s Game of Life,” and watch what happens in the margins.) First proposed in the 1940s, cellular automata were obscure academic hypotheses until Conway’s game simplified the theory and birthed an entire new field of computational research.

As a 2015 Guardian profile of Conway put it, “the Game of Life demonstrates how simplicity generates complexity, providing an analogy for all of mathematics, and the entire universe.”

Conway confirmed what several mathematicians have noticed since the station’s unveiling: the pattern on the façade follows the logic not of Conway’s Life but of Wolfram’s Rule 30, a different cellular automaton identified by the computer scientist Stephen Wolfram. The UK-born Wolfram has no affiliation with Cambridge, but did briefly attend the University of Oxford, Cambridge’s rival institution.

The station’s architect has confirmed that the design is in fact the more aesthetically-pleasing Rule 30. Claims that the pattern is “derived” from Conway’s theories are technically true, if indirectly: the Cambridge professor’s groundbreaking game paved the way for later theories, including the one the design most closely resembles.

But Conway notices too many differences to recognize his work in the station itself. The patterns rendered by the Game of Life leave more white space, among other differences, he said.

“That’s not mine,” Conway said of the pattern. “I have had an influence on Cambridge, but not apparently on the new railway station.”

home our picks popular latest obsessions search