This is another fascinating branch of mathematics – which uses computing to illustrate complexity (and order) in nature.  Langton’s Ant shows how very simple initial rules (ie a deterministic system) can have very unexpected consequences.  Langton’s Ant follows two simple rules:
1) At a white square, turn 90° right, flip the color of the square, move forward one unit
2) At a black square, turn 90° left, flip the color of the square, move forward one unit.

The ant exists on an infinite grid – and is able to travel N,S,E or W. You might expect the pattern generated to either appear completely random, or to replicate a fixed pattern. What actually happens is you have a chaotic pattern for around 10,000 iterations – and then all of a sudden a diagonal “highway” emerges – and then continues forever. In other words there is emergent behavior – order from chaos. What is even more remarkable is that you can populate the initial starting grid with any number of black squares – and you will still end up with the same emergent pattern of an infinitely repeating diagonal highway.

See a JAVA app demonstration (this uses a flat screen where exiting the end of one side allows you to return elsewhere – so this will ultimately lead to disruption of the highway pattern)

Such cellular automatons are a way of using computational power to try and replicate the natural world – The Game of Life is another well known automaton which starts of with very simple rules – designed to replicate (crudely) bacterial population growth. Small changes to the initial starting conditions result in wildly different outcomes – and once again you see patterns emerging from apparent random behavior. Such automatons can themselves be used as “computers” to calculate the solution to problems. One day could we design a computer program that replicates life itself? Could that then be said to be alive?

I’ve put together four comprehensive pdf guides to help students prepare for their exploration coursework and Paper 3 investigations. The exploration guides talk through the marking criteria, common student mistakes, excellent ideas for explorations, technology advice, modeling methods and a variety of statistical techniques with detailed explanations. I’ve also made 17 full investigation questions which are also excellent starting points for explorations.  The Exploration Guides can be downloaded here and the Paper 3 Questions can be downloaded here.