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What does rule 29 mean?

Rule 29 is a key rule in one of the simplest known cellular automata called Elementary Cellular Automata (ECA). Cellular automata are mathematical models used to simulate complex systems and study emergent behaviors. They consist of a grid of cells that can each be in one of a finite number of states, often just 0 or 1. The states of the cells evolve in discrete time steps according to a set of rules based on the states of their neighbor cells.

Introduction to Cellular Automata

Cellular automata (CA) were originally conceived of by Stanislaw Ulam and John von Neumann in the 1940s to study self-replication. They were further developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by John Conway with his Game of Life, and Stephen Wolfram and others as a model for complexity, emergent properties and self-organization. Wolfram did extensive research on one-dimensional CAs, known as elementary CAs, where each cell has two possible states (0 or 1) and the rules depend only on the cell itself and its two immediate neighbors.

An elementary CA consists of a line of cells, each in a state 0 or 1. The states of all the cells are updated simultaneously in discrete time steps according to a fixed rule. The rule takes as input the current state of a cell and its two neighbors, and from this determines the next state of the cell. There are 256 (2^8) such rules, enumerated from 0 to 255 and referred to as the “rule number”, since each rule can be specified uniquely by an 8 bit binary number. For example, rule 90 means the rule specified by the Wolfram code 00011010 in binary.

Some key properties and behaviors that can emerge from CAs include:

  • Homogeneity – All cells follow the same rules
  • Local connections – Rules depend only on neighboring cells
  • Simplicity – Despite simple rules, complex behaviors can emerge
  • Discrete states – Cells have a finite set of states (often just 0 or 1)
  • Synchronicity – All cells update simultaneously in discrete time steps
  • Determinism – Future states are completely determined by the initial state
  • Self-organization – Complex patterns can emerge from local interactions

Cellular automata are Turing complete, meaning they can mimic any single-taped Turing machine. They have been applied in many fields including mathematics, theoretical biology and physics, complexity science, and computer science.

Elementary Cellular Automata

Elementary cellular automata (ECA) refer specifically to the simplest one-dimensional binary (two-state) CAs. In ECAs, there is a row of cells each with a state 0 or 1. The state of each cell at time t+1 depends only on its own state and the state of its two immediate neighbors at time t. Since there are 2 possible states for each of the 3 cells involved, there are 2^3 = 8 possible neighborhood configurations. And for each of these, the cell can transition to 0 or 1, giving 2^8 = 256 total possible transition rules. These rules are enumerated from 0 to 255 and referred to by their “rule number”.

For example, rule 90 means the rule specified by 00011010 in binary. We can write out the logic for this rule in a table:

111 110 101 100 011 010 001 000
0 1 1 0 1 1 0 0

The top row shows all 8 possible neighborhood configurations from 111 to 000, and the bottom row gives the cell’s next state (0 or 1) for each configuration. We can see that for rule 90, the cell updates to state 1 if its left neighbor is 1, irrespective of its own state or right neighbor.

Classes of Elementary Cellular Automata

Stephen Wolfram analyzed and classified one-dimensional binary CAs into four qualitative classes based on their dynamics and behavior:

  1. Class I – Converge to a homogeneous state
  2. Class II – Exhibit stable or oscillating structures
  3. Class III – Exhibit chaotic patterns
  4. Class IV – Exhibit complex localized structures, sometimes long-lived

The specific class a CA rule belongs to can depend on initial conditions. But most rules have a typical dominant class. Generally, Class I and II rules are considered simpler, while Class III and IV can show complex emergent behavior.

Rule 29

Rule 29 is a one-dimensional elementary CA rule that has been found to exhibit particularly interesting and complex behavior. It belongs to Wolfram’s Class IV rules that can form localized structures that interact in complex ways.

The logic table for rule 29 is:

111 110 101 100 011 010 001 000
1 0 0 1 1 0 0 0

We can see that a cell transitions to state 1 under rule 29 if its left neighbor is 1 and its own state is 0 or 1. Otherwise, it transitions to 0.

Properties of Rule 29

Some key properties of rule 29 CA include:

  • Tends to evolve to complex localized structures from random initial states
  • Supports stable propagating structures known as ‘particles’
  • Particles interact in complex ways – can reflect, merge, replicate etc.
  • Rule 29 was proved to be computationally universal – capable of mimicking a Turing machine
  • Despite simple rules, dynamics can be extremely complicated and hard to predict
  • Exhibits gliders – small repeating structures that propagate across cells

These types of complex emergent structures from simple underlying rules are a hallmark of Wolfram Class IV CAs like rule 29. The interacting particles, gliders and ability to perform complex computations illustrate how rule 29 dynamics can lead to complexity.

Example Patterns in Rule 29

Here are some example patterns that emerge in rule 29 from simple initial states:

  • Single cell – A single 1 cell evolves to stabilized blocks of 1s separated by 0s
  • Random initial states – Complex localized propagating structures form spontaneously
  • Single particle – A 5 cell structure that stably propagates unchanged
  • Gliders – Small structures that translate or reflect particles
  • Collision interactions – Particles collide elastically, merge, reflect, replicate etc.

These complex interactions illustrate how rule 29 exhibits emergent phenomena not apparent from the simple rules. Particles seem to have distinct identities and behaviors emerging from local cell updates.

Complexity in Rule 29

Despite very simple underlying rules, rule 29 consistently exhibits extremely complex behavior that is hard to anticipate. Some reasons for this complexity include:

Sensitivity to initial conditions

Tiny changes in initial states can dramatically alter outcomes. This butterfly effect where small disturbances cascade is a signature of chaos.


Localized structures like particles and gliders self-organize from lower-level interactions. Their behaviors are not explicitly programmed in the rules.


The system evolution is nonlinear. Outcomes are not proportional to inputs due to complex feedback loops.

Computational universality

Rule 29 was proved Turing complete, able to mimic any computer program, implying extreme flexibility.


The patterns appear random, but are completely determined by the initial state and rules. This pseudo-randomness arises from geometric symmetries.

Together, these factors enable rule 29 to generate immense complexity from spartan ingredients – a hallmark of Wolfram’s Class IV CAs.

Applications of Rule 29

The complex emergent phenomena in rule 29 have fascinated scientists and mathematicians. Some applications taking advantage of its dynamics include:

Computer graphics

The organic patterns and textures generated by rule 29 can be used in computer graphics and procedural content creation for visual media.

Rule 29 CA pattern Computer graphic artwork generated with rule 29

Pseudo-random number generation

The pseudo-random patterns of rule 29 can generate sequences of bits for random number generation in simulations, gaming, cryptography and Monte Carlo methods.

Physical and chemical systems

Rule 29 has been used to model phenomena like crystal growth, fluid dynamics, chemical reactions, and nanoscale electronics that exhibit localized structures interacting in complex ways like rule 29 particles.

Biological systems

The emergent properties in rule 29 are analogous to cell differentiation, organism morphogenesis and collective behavior in biological systems.

Philosophical Implications

The complexity generated by rule 29 from such minimalistic ingredients has philosophical implications:


The spontaneous appearance of complexity like particles and gliders illustrates the principles of emergence – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Determinism vs free will

Despite completely deterministic rules, the system behaves in a seemingly non-deterministic manner, raising questions about determinism and free will.

Reductionism vs holism

The complexity arising from simple reductionist rules suggests that holistic approaches are needed to understand complex natural systems.


Even simple systems can be practically impossible to predict, illustrating the limits of knowledge, similar to chaos theory.

By exhibiting such rich dynamics from Spartan rules, rule 29 provides insight into how complexity arises in nature from the interaction of simple components.

Variants of Rule 29

There are some common variations of rule 29 that have been studied:

Two-dimensional rule 29

This extends rule 29 to a 2D grid of cells, where each cell has 8 neighbors. Similar complex patterns emerge.

Asynchronous rule 29

Instead of updating all cells simultaneously, cells are updated independently in random order. Surprisingly, many features remain unchanged.

Non-binary rule 29

Cells can take more than 2 states, leading to more diversity of structures. But complexity persists.

Stochastic rule 29

A randomness factor is introduced into the rule 29 transitions. Despite randomness, ordered patterns still spontaneously appear, demonstrating self-organization.

These variations elucidate the core mechanisms behind rule 29’s complexity – localized structures, interactions and information propagation seem central to the emergence of complex behavior.

Connections to Other CAs

Rule 29 exhibits similarities to other notable elementary CAs:

Rule 30

Rule 30 also displays complex patterns and was proved capable of universal computation. But rule 29 patterns seem more spatially coherent.

Rule 110

Rule 110 is the simplest proven universal CA, capable of emulating any other. But rule 29 is considered subjectively more elegant by some.

Conway’s Game of Life

This 2D CA also exhibits emergent patterns like gliders. But Game of Life has more complex rules compared to the simplicity of rule 29.

The common themes are simple underlying rules leading to spontaneous self-organization into complex persisting structures through local interactions.

Limitations of Rule 29

Despite its intriguing properties, rule 29 has some limitations:

  • Can be computationally intensive to simulate many time steps
  • Behavior is extremely sensitive to initial conditions
  • Difficult to rigorously prove results about behavior except computation universality
  • Patterns lack clear regularities making analysis tricky
  • Challenging to control outcomes, unlike simpler CAs

These stem largely from the nonlinearity and chaos inherent in rule 29. So while it can produce immensely complex dynamics, they can be difficult to tame towards practical goals.

Active Research Areas

Some active research topics around rule 29 and related CAs include:

  • Efficient simulation algorithms for fast modeling of rule 29 patterns
  • Using machine learning to detect and characterize structures in rule 29 evolutions
  • Harnessing rule 29-like CAs for modeling natural phenomena
  • Developing rigorous analytical results about rule 29’s computational abilities
  • Engineering specific dynamics by custom designing CA rulesets
  • Studying variants like asynchronous rule 29 or probabilistic rule 29

Rule 29 continues to fascinate researchers over 40 years after its discovery, as new computational capabilities shed light on the intricate complexity arising from such a simple system. The findings could lead to insights about modeling real-world complex systems in science and nature.


In summary, rule 29 demonstrates how extraordinarily complex structures and behaviors can spontaneously emerge from very simple underlying rules through local interactions. Despite being deterministic, it exhibits pseudo-randomness and computational universality. Variants like 2D rule 29 and stochastic rule 29 show similar lifelike properties. The philosophical implications about complexity, emergence, unpredictability and determinism continue to intrigue generations of scientists and thinkers. Rule 29 provides a powerful illustration of how simplicity begets complexity.