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The Computer Maverick Who Modeled the Evolution of Life

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In 1953, at the dawn of modern computing, Nils Aall Barricelli played God. Clutching a deck of playing cards in one hand and a stack of punched cards in the other, Barricelli hovered over one of the world’s earliest and most influential computers, the IAS machine, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. During the day the computer was used to make weather forecasting calculations; at night it was commandeered by the Los Alamos group to calculate ballistics for nuclear weaponry. Barricelli, a maverick mathematician, part Italian and part Norwegian, had finagled time on the computer to model the origins and evolution of life.

Inside a simple red brick building at the northern corner of the Institute’s wooded wilds, Barricelli ran models of evolution on a digital computer. His artificial universes, which he fed with numbers drawn from shuffled playing cards, teemed with creatures of code—morphing, mutating, melting, maintaining. He created laws that determined, independent of any foreknowledge on his part, which assemblages of binary digits lived, which died, and which adapted. As he put it in a 1961 paper, in which he speculated on the prospects and conditions for life on other planets, “The author has developed numerical organisms, with properties startlingly similar to living organisms, in the memory of a high-speed computer.” For these coded critters, Barricelli became a maker of worlds.

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Illustration by Daniel Zender.

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