The Recursive Universe: Cosmic Complexity and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge
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The Recursive Universe: Cosmic Complexity and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge

4.0 of 5 stars 4.00  ·  rating details  ·  89 ratings  ·  10 reviews
Fascinating journey explores key concepts in information theory in terms of Conway's "Game of Life" program. Topics include the limits of knowledge, paradox of complexity, Maxwell's demon, Big Bang theory, much more. 1985 edition.
Paperback, 252 pages
Published September 10th 1985 by McGraw-Hill/Contemporary (first published November 28th 1984)
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Peter Mcloughlin
I have enjoyed Poundstone's book prisoner's dilemma. I really enjoyed this one too. Conway explores complexity, life and its fate, the laws of physics, the possibility of machines that make even more complex machines and how complexity can bootstrap itself with simple rules into ever growing intricacy. The book starts out with Johnny Von Neumann in the 1950s when he hit upon the idea of a machine that can make copies of it self from the environment and the possibility that such a machine could m...more
I read 'The Recursive Universe' after finishing one of Poundstone's other novels 'Fortune's Formula'. The book is a detailed view of cosmic order and gives a foundation for the (currently) intractable question of whether life/human existence can be synthesized into two fundamental physical constants know as the the Grand Unified Theory (reductionist). The notion of whether life, while seeming arbitrary, is therefore inevitable hinges on the answer of whether increasing complexity can grow recurs...more
Kara Godsey
This is one of those books that I refer to as "everything books." That is, the contents of such a book are hardly restricted to one topic alone. Poundstone starts the book off by introducing the reader to the game of Life, a computer game create by Conway in the fifties, that is supposed to simulate the growth of bacteria. If I remember correctly, at least. The game is not necessarily complex, as much as it is merely expansive. The rules are simple but the possibilities of the outcome are enormo...more
Brian Powell
Dec 04, 2012 Brian Powell rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Fans of Paula Poundstone, robots
Shelves: pop-sci
Where does the perceived complexity of the universe come from? Surely from something equally as complex. Or are there exceptions? Consider the irrational number pi; to all appearances, an infinite string of unpredictable numbers -- mathematically indistinguishable from a random and meaningless collection of bits. But unlike a an infinite random string of numbers, pi can be completely encoded succinctly in the form of a recursive relation with only two terms - all that complexity reduced to a sim...more
Nick Black
Amazon 2008-11-30. Apparently out of print, but I found a beat-up hardback for less than $5, so all's well. I'm sure I've heard of this before; it's reviewed like a cult classic, ala Minsky's Perceptrons or Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge , the latter of which I enjoyed very much. Hopefully it'll arrive soon, as I intend to get a lot of reading done between the end of finals and the new year!
This book tells about the Game of Life and John von Neumann's self-reproducing automata accurately enough, as far as I can tell, but when Poundstone talks about Maxwell's demon it is clear that he has never heard of Rolf Landauer's explanation of the demon's impossibility made 24 years earlier. Isn't it lame when a popular science writer isn't aware of 24-year-old science?
Jim Hamski
Perhaps my favorite science book of all time. It covers the basics of information theory, combinatorics, physics, computing, etc. in a way that is just thrilling.

Great timing now too, this book is recently back in print!
Olle Jonsson
Glorious book. An adventure.
Deeply engrossing science. His description of the ultimate fate of the universe is the high point of the book.
along the lines of Stephen Hawking's 'A Brief History of Time', with a lot more computer jargon.
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When I was an eight-year-old boy in West Virginia, a friend of my father's gave me a paperback copy of Martin Gardner's Mathematical Puzzles & Diversions. He gave it to me because (a) it had all these logic puzzles in it, and they were "too hard" for him and (b) my father had boasted that I was a pretty bright kid. So maybe I would like it. As I thumbed through the Gardner book, it struck me a...more
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