Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway

Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway

Siobhan Roberts

Language: English

Pages: 480

ISBN: 1620405954

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


John Horton Conway is a singular mathematician with a lovely loopy brain. He is Archimedes, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Richard Feynman all rolled into one--he boasts a rock star's charisma, a slyly bent sense of humor, a polymath's promiscuous curiosity, and an insatiable compulsion to explain everything about the world to everyone in it. At Cambridge, Conway wrestled with "Monstrous Moonshine," discovered the aptly named surreal numbers, and invented the cult classic Game of Life--more than just a cool fad, Life demonstrates how simplicity generates complexity and provides an analogy for mathematics and the entire universe. As a "mathemagician" at Princeton, he used ropes, dice, pennies, coat hangers, even the occasional Slinky, as props to extend his winning imagination and share his many nerdish delights. He granted Roberts full access to his idiosyncrasies and intellect both, though not without the occasional grumble: "Oh hell," he'd say. "You're not going to put that in the book. Are you?!?"

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where back in the day he’d often run jobs for Conway. All these years later, it was as if they’d last seen each other the day before yesterday. They were clearly glad to see each other but didn’t have much to say. For my benefit, Mike explained that his first name is actually John, but when he first met Conway Mike decided there should be only 1 John, so Mike went by his middle name instead. And he recounted some of their many exploits. Together they had explored everything under the sun,

supplicants arrived at his alcove seeking consultations and collaborations. The inventor of KenKen, Japanese educator Tetsuya Miyamoto, stopped in at Princeton for the Pi Day celebrations and said he wanted to meet Conway. They shook hands and talked Ken-Ken—in Japanese it means “wisdom squared,” and it demonstrates Tetsuya’s educational philosophy, “the art of teaching without teaching.” Then there were the Oakes twins, Ryan and Trevor, artists known for their drawings that “employ split focus

where I was still ensconced, researching and writing, forwarded an e-mail warning that had been sent out to all the states that might be affected in various regions: “Sometime in April or May of this year, a swarm of insects called Brood II Cicadas will rise from the earth and fill the skies. . . .” It sounded like the end of days, but the bottom line was not to worry, the cicadas are “relatively harmless.” Relatively harmless like Conway and his publish-and-be-damned threats. His bark is worse

go as far as to say it was the correct theory, at least not before eliciting Gödel’s opinion on the subject. During a visit to Princeton in the 1970s, Conway got the chance to ask the great man himself. He would never have been so daring as to simply ring Gödel and request an appointment. The meeting came about via their mutual friend Stanley Tennenbaum, a mathematician and logician. Tennenbaum was a dead ringer for actor Martin Landau, with piercing eyes that made people think he might be mad.

just a fantasy, nonsense really. For the first month, the family lived off the modest amount of money Conway had in his pocket. He worried it couldn’t possibly last until payday. When payday arrived, he had money like the sun, 10 times the amount they’d lived off during the last month. Straightaway they bought a car, a Lincoln Continental, previously owned by a Catholic priest. It cost $800 and was as big as a tank, among the largest cars ever made. Not that Conway should have been driving. He’s

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