John Conway leaves a legacy of the most awe-inspiring mathematical and magical mind-twisters—the Monster group and monstrous moonshine, surreal numbers, Sprouts, Hackenbush, the Game of Life, the Angel problem, FRACTRAN, his 15-theorem, his 13-function, rational tangles, icosians, lexicodes, the look-and-say sequence, Conway’s soldiers, the free will theorem…
Conway was both a great mathematician and a great math popularizer: not quite the world’s greatest in either category, as he was not quite the math popularizer that Martin Gardner was (but Gardner wasn’t a mathematician) and not quite the pure mathematician that Terence Tao is (but Tao isn’t a popularizer). Conway, however, was the best possible combo of the two.
Although he was English by ethnicity and nationality, Conway spent the latter half of his life at Princeton, with which he is no indelibly associated. In my mind he is also indelibly associated with Conway’s Game of Life and surreal numbers, both of which influenced my math teaching.
There is no point in my trying to do what others can do much better, so I want to refer you to three links. Check them out:
- Scott Aaronson’s oddly named blog, Shtetl-Optimized. Aaronson observes that Conway was “a mathematical jokester and puzzler who could delight and educate anyone from a Fields Medalist to a first-grader.” The comments are filled with wonderful anecdotes.
- The article in Curiosa Mathematica containing the quote with which I opened this piece.
- An apt reminiscence by the aforementioned Terence Tao.
- A wonderful (but odd) Numberphile video called “The Legendary John Conway”. Watch (or listen to) the whole thing if you have time.
OK, so that’s four, not three — but as Conway would probably say, …