John Horton Conway (1937-2020)

By Edmund Schluessel: Two tweets from his colleagues report the death of Prof. John Horton Conway, one of the most renowned mathematicians of the past century, from COVID-19.

As a mathematician Conway will probably be most remembered for his eponymous “Game of Life”, which illustrated how complex behaviors in mathematical systems could emerge from simple rules. Conway’s explorations in this subject fundamentally expanded the applications of the branch of mathematics known as cellular automaton theory.

Conway also earned a reputation as a popularizer of mathematics, writing multiple texts that brought ideas from the most abstract realms of mathematics to the everyday person. His mathematical game “Sprouts,” which draws on ideas from graph theory, presents a challenge with unexpected patterns emerging in each variation despite starting from rules appropriate for kindergarteners.

Among his most significant recent contributions was a series of papers with Simon Kochen which attempt to use mathematics to establish a deep relationship between free will and quantum mechanics.

Born in Liverpool, England in 1937, Conway spend the second half of his career as John von Neumann Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Princeton University.. He is survived by his wife Diana, seven children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

14 thoughts on “John Horton Conway (1937-2020)

  1. I’ve spent much time playing with the Game of Life on a variety of computers (mainframes, Amigas, etc.). Vale, John Conway.

  2. II’m pretty sure Conway will be most remembered as a mathematician, at least by other mathematicians, for the Atlas of Finite Groups, and his work on group theory in general.

  3. Lis Carey says Wee are going to lose so many good people. Far too many. ?

    One of the new conservative talking points is that they’re not really dying of Covid 19 but died of whatever they would’ve died of anyways and are being labelled as such to make the numbers look worse in an attempt to embarrass to Trump.

    I’ve got an NP who’s monitoring my head trauma via weekly phone chats now who’s under house quarantine because she had a kidney transplant five years ago. She’s allowed to take walks in her neighborhood with her two daughters so long as she wears an N95 mask and doesn’t approach anyone she knows closer than a cross the street to chat.

    I ‘m under orders from her to always wear a mask if I enter any store, period. We wear masks and gloves at the two food pantries I help staff, hence my getting three hundred masks for us.

    No, it’s not a fake virus and fuck you for thinking it is.

  4. That’s … horrible — but hardly unexpected. It’s also a lie, of course; the local listings are majority-old, but there are have been a lot of people who should have been nowhere near dying (60’s, even 50’s).

  5. Rats.

    When I was in gradual school a while ago, Conway came to my university, and I attended the talk he gave for general consumption. It was very approachable.

  6. It sounds like he is not so warmly remembered by many of his women colleagues. This Twitter stream came up in my timeline about the late John Conway:

    https://twitter.com/WanderingPoint/status/1249386686590660608

    Dr. Wandering Point
    @WanderingPoint
    Look, I don’t want to be THAT GIRL again. But did anyone but me notice that all of these tributes, every one of them, is from a dude?

    Posts on the thread include:

    Anna Haensch
    @extremefriday
    Replying to
    @WanderingPoint
    I met him once, when I was a grad student visiting Princeton and was asked to give him a ride to dinner. He told me to call him “Daddy” and we didn’t talk about math at all. And that’s about the sum of it.

    Cathy O’Neil
    @mathbabedotorg
    Replying to
    @WanderingPoint
    and
    @extremefriday
    I met him in high school when he came to my math camp. He didnt make eye contact with me or any girls.

    Dr. Wandering Point
    @WanderingPoint
    I was really nervous & excited to meet him & to share a meal with him b/c I had heard all of these stories about how mathematically gregarious he was & how exciting it was just to sit in his presence. But not for me.

    Dr. Wandering Point
    @WanderingPoint
    Maybe it was just me. Maybe it was that time in his life when he was less enthusiastic about engaging with new people. Maybe being a grad student at Brown instead of Princeton made me not worth his time. I don’t know.

    Nat Garcia
    @NtlGrc
    Replying to
    @WanderingPoint
    and
    @pwr2dppl
    I did not meet Conway myself, but “the charming” anecdote of his that I know is how he “proposed” to two different female mathematicians in the same conference (in 2010) so ?????.

    Michael J Barany
    @MBarany
    Replying to
    @MBarany
    and
    @WanderingPoint
    as with conversations about other “loveable oddballs” in math, it’s also relevant that male privilege was an indispensible part of what allowed him to thrive

  7. OTOH, his biographer, Siobhan Roberts, who spent long periods of time with him, found him “charming”. And it’s not like she is blind to issues of sexism.

    I met him a few times at the Gathering for Gardner. Once at dinner, he taught us all his algorithm for calculating the day of the week for any date. He could do it almost as fast as you could say the date; my speed was never that good.

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