Nautilus

The Computer Maverick Who Modeled the Evolution of Life

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.

Until his death in 1993, Barricelli floated between biological and mathematical sciences, questioning doctrine, not quite fitting in. “He was a brilliant, eccentric genius,” says George Dyson, the historian of technology and author of and , which feature Barricelli’s work. “And the thing about geniuses is that they just see things clearly that other people don’t see.”

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus9 min read
Metaphors Are Us: War, murder, music, art. We would have none without metaphor.
The other day I fixed something—a rarity for me. The flotation device in the toilet water tank was rubbing against the side, getting stuck halfway up so that the tank didn’t fill completely. I own a hammer and know how to operate it. But I couldn’t f
Nautilus15 min read
How American Tycoons Created the Dinosaur: The story of dinosaurs is also the story of capitalism.
The dinosaur is a chimera. Some parts of this complex assemblage are the result of biological evolution. But others are products of human ingenuity, constructed by artists, scientists, and technicians in a laborious process that stretches from the di
Nautilus14 min readPsychology
The Strange Persistence of First Languages: After my father died, my journey of rediscovery began with the Czech language.
Several years ago, my father died as he had done most things throughout his life: without preparation and without consulting anyone. He simply went to bed one night, yielded his brain to a monstrous blood clot, and was found the next morning lying am