"Rules of Engagement," by Ian Stewart. New Scientist, 29 August 1998, pages 36-40.
In the 1950s, mathematician John von Neumann was trying to figure out whether life's ability to copy itself is based on some subtle mathematical property of ordinary matter. To experiment, he used a system developed in the 1940s by computer pioneer Konrad Zuse. The system, called cellular automata, is composed of essentially an overgrown chessboard with each square, or cell, a particular color to indicate its "state." This chessboard universe is also equipped with its own "laws of nature," which describe how a cell's state will change at the next instant.
Despite making some progress in his research, von Neumann lost interest after Watson and Crick discovered DNA. After being largely ignored, cellular automata was rediscovered in the 1980s, when it was found to be of help in modelling systems made of simple parts that interact to create a complicated, baffling whole.
Lately, researchers have used cellular automata to model a variety of natural complexities, including the recovery of the Persian Gulf's ecosystem after the Gulf War, and the formation of rivers and deltas. But beyond this, cellular automata could tell us more about our own existence--experiments have been done that could lead to a better understanding of how fundamental particles act. In fact, we might be able to use this chessboard universe to help solve the mysteries of our own universe.
--- Ben Stein