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Saturday, July 25, 2015

The world’s most charismatic mathematician - John Horton Conway

Follow on Twitter as @sioroberts
Siobhan Roberts, author of Genius at Play writes, "John Horton Conway is a cross between Archimedes, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí. For many years, he worried that his obsession with playing silly games was ruining his career – until he realised that it could lead to extraordinary discoveries."

John Conway in his office at Princeton in 1993. Photograph: Dith Pran/The New York Times/Red/Eyevine

On a late September day in 1956, John Horton Conway left home with a trunk on his back. He was a skinny 18-year-old, with long, unkempt hair – a sort of proto-hippie – and although he generally preferred to go barefoot, on this occasion he wore strappy Jesus sandals. He travelled by steam train from Liverpool to Cambridge, where he was to start life as an undergraduate. During the five-hour journey, via Crewe with a connection in Bletchley, something dawned on him: this was a chance to reinvent himself.

In junior school, one of Conway’s teachers had nicknamed him “Mary”. He was a delicate, effeminate creature. Being Mary made his life absolute hell until he moved on to secondary school, at Liverpool’s Holt High School for Boys. Soon after term began, the headmaster called each boy into his office and asked what he planned to do with his life. John said he wanted to read mathematics at Cambridge. Instead of “Mary” he became known as “The Prof”. These nicknames confirmed Conway as a terribly introverted adolescent, painfully aware of his own suffering.

After loitering for a time with the teenage reprobates at the back of the classroom, Conway ultimately did well enough on the university entrance exams to receive a minor scholarship and get his name published in the Liverpool Daily Post. As he sat on the train to Cambridge, it dawned on him that since none of his classmates would be joining him at university, he would be able to transform himself into a new person: an extrovert! He wasn’t sure it would work. He worried that his introversion might be too entrenched, but he decided to try. He would be boisterous and witty, he would tell funny stories at parties, he would laugh at himself – that was key.

“Roughly speaking,” he recalled, “I was going to become the kind of person you see now. It was a free decision.”

Now 77, John Horton Conway is perhaps the world’s most lovable egomaniac. He is Archimedes, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dalí, and Richard Feynman, all rolled into one. He is one of the greatest living mathematicians, with a sly sense of humour, a polymath’s promiscuous curiosity, and a compulsion to explain everything about the world to everyone in it. According to Sir Michael Atiyah, former president of the Royal Society and arbiter of mathematical fashion, “Conway is the most magical mathematician in the world.”

For the last quarter century Conway has held the position of Princeton’s John von Neumann distinguished professor in applied and computational mathematics, now emeritus. Before that, he spent three decades at Cambridge, where in the 1970s, he dived deep into the vast ocean of mathematical symmetry. He discovered a 24-dimensional symmetry group that came to bear his name, and, with his colleague Simon Norton, he illuminated the 196,883-dimensional Monster group with a paper titled “Monstrous Moonshine”. Conway also discovered a new class of numbers, infinitely large and infinitesimally small, which are now known as “surreal numbers”. Those achievements earned him a spot as a fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, the oldest scientific society in the world. Conway likes to mention that when he was elected in 1981, he signed the big book of fellows at the induction ceremony and was pleased to see on previous pages the names Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, and Bertrand Russell.

Additional resources

Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway

GENIUS AT PLAY by Siobhan Roberts (YouTube).
An inadvertently authorizied biography. GENIUS AT PLAY is the story of number theory and game theory told through the life of legendary mathematician John Horton Conway.
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (10 Sept. 2015). 

John Horton Conway (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
John Conway | Department of Mathematics  
Interview with John Horton Conway by Prof. Dr. Dierk Schleicher, Ph.D. 

Source: The Guardian

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