Langton and his Ant

Choose the shape of your Universe

Choose the shape of your Universe

In my last post, I mentioned the wonderful strangeness of the Universe we all bimble around in and how it manifests itself in the weirdest ways. It made me think about some other oddities that I have come across and so I present another right here, right now, for your perusal.

In 1986, one Chris Langton trained an ant to do the following: walking across a grid of white squares, whenever it encountered a white square it would turn 90 degrees to the right and move forwards to the next square. The neat thing it did, though, was to shade the square it was leaving black. When you’re an ant, this is the height of modern art. Turner Prize-winning art, in fact.

When the ant, now going under the name of ‘Antsky’, encountered a black square, it would turn 90 degrees to the left, move forwards to the next square and shade the square it was leaving white.

Simple, almost dull rules. And yet, after 10,000 or so steps, they produce one knackered ant and this:

An Antsky Original

An Antsky Original

This is an example of complexity produced from such simple rules. Actually, ridiculously simple rules. If you start the ant again (after a suitable recovery period with food, of course), but don’t clean the canvas first, then even more art happens:

Another Antsky Original

Another Antsky Original

If you answer Yes to the question posed in the first picture, you end up with a yummy (American) doughnut Universe and splendid chaotic shapes as the ant loops back on itself.

For some reason, the any will always eventually produce the “highway” shape at the end – it goes off to infinity (where there are no doughnuts) or loops back to cause more chaos.

Chris Langton went on to train other small insects and even a moth to produce works of art.* Probably.** His original ant tragically drowned in a puddle of spilled ink, though the conspiracy theorists would have you believe the ant was murdered. We may never know.***

You can, if you wish, use many colours and many ants and the art they produce is really quite stunning, despite all using the two basic rules I described above. I didn’t here because I did this simulation on a spreadsheet in a couple of free hours about 5 years ago. I am thinking I might though…

Just another way the Universe (doughnut shaped or otherwise) can surprise you!


* This may come as a surprise but I am pretty sure he didn’t.

** I think the phrase here is “Definitely not.”

*** Probably for the best.






Categories: General silliness, maths, Universe | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Langton and his Ant

  1. Isn’t it amazing what scientists will do to amuse themselves and attempt to win the Nobel prize eh? 😉


  2. No ants were harmed in the writing of this post… at least I hope not!


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