Extinction Math

How do you feel about playing God? As a hobby, I mean. Not full time.

If you do, spend a few minutes playing an ancient computer “game” called Life. I remember stumbling across this as a very young computer user and probably wasting a lot of hours on it.

The idea is this: Put dots on the screen wherever you want, as many as you want. If a dot is by itself or next to just one other dot, it dies (like an isolated person). If it’s next to four or more other dots, it dies (like overpopulation). If it has two or three dots near it, it survives. And an empty dot with three neighbors becomes “alive.”

Then watch and see what happens to your population. SPOILER ALERT: growth, sometimes spectacular growth, followed by either a drop to stability or collapse.

James Bierman (l) and Michael Grandage (r) from the Michael Grandage Company. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

James Bierman (l) and Michael Grandage (r) from the Michael Grandage Company. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

West End director Michael Grandage made some comments I found pretty interesting in The Stage News, so it’s probably a window into my mind to know that they made me think of the Life game. He said that diversifying and adding younger people to the current West End audience was critical because “the West End will close when this generation becomes senior citizens. Because who will replace the people who are now old? They will be dead shortly. If there’s nobody to replace the dead people then we won’t have a West End.”

And while I couldn’t agree more with the need to reach beyond the typical audience, I think Grandage is speaking more poetically then mathematically about the extinction of the West End audience.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if someone could create a simulation for the West End (or other) audiences to project what they’ll be if the “rules” don’t change. Extinction math works like this:

Current population + Annual “births” (meaning new people becoming audience) – Annual “deaths” (which could mean people dropping out of the audience or, ahem, actually dying) = Next year’s population.

Repeat this twenty times and, if no new forces intervene, you’ve got the size of the audience in 20 years.

Hey, John Conway! Maybe you could whip something up for us?


Homepage Photo Credit: “More Women,” © 2005 Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

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