THE RECURSIVE UNIVERSE: Cosmic Complexity and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge by William Poundstone

THE RECURSIVE UNIVERSE: Cosmic Complexity and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge

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The title should be a caveat: if you understand that ""recursive"" refers to an iterative process used, say, in a mathematical formula in which the next term of a series is defined in terms of the preceding term, you have a clue to the ideas expressed in this intriguing book. Poundstone, an MIT-trained physicist, casts his net widely to discourse on cosmology, biology, particle physics, self-reproducing robots, and game theory. His connecting links, and indeed his own sort of higher-order recursions, are chapters in which he introduces and develops variations on a computer game called ""Life,"" invented by a mathematician named John Conway while at Cambridge. ""Life"" is a completely programmable game that produces changing patterns on a visual display following the player's establishing a set of initial conditions. Poundstone credits Stanislaw Ulam with the genesis of such displays: It appears that when the late mathematician was at Los Alamos toying with early computers, he was able to program unexpected and pleasing visual patterns using simple recursion formulas. Conway's ""Life"" was popularized by Martin Gardner, and led to a cult following among hackers challenged to see what kinds of rules could generate complex patterns that would reproduce themselves--spawning successive generations of copies of the pattern. It seemed like a way of getting something for nothing--and hence a possible violation of the second law of thermodynamics. Thus, Poundstone introduces the history of Maxwell's Demon and some of the clever dodges that scientists have constructed to make the demon into a perpetual motion machine. In the end, of course, there is no denying the second law. What Poundstone conjectures is that the universe and life itself may represent the latter-day increase in complexity and pattern that has fallen out of an information-packed set of recursion formulas that started the world going, so to speak. Appealing, provocative ideas for an audience with some physics, mathematics, information theory, and computer savvy (programming details are supplied and illustrated).

Pub Date: Nov. 28th, 1984
Publisher: Morrow