7 Facts About the Charming "God-Monster" Mathematical Iconoclast John Horton Conway

Siobhan Roberts, author of the new biography “Genius At Play, The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway,” introduces us to the infatuating Princeton mathematician who one reviewer called “perhaps the greatest living genius unknown to the general public.”
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John Horton Conway Photo

John Horton Conway and his cult classic invention, a cellular automaton called Game of Life. (Photo: Kelvin Brodie/The Sun News Syndication)

In 1969, John Horton Conway (then a professor at Cambridge University), had what he calls his “miracle year.” He hit upon three white-hot discoveries that secured his fame: One, he invented the cult classic Game of Life—not the board game, but a little machine called a cellular automaton. Two, he found “surreal numbers,” a truly bizarre collection of infinite and infinitesimal numbers. And three, he hunted down the Conway group, a 24-dimensional highly symmetrical entity.

Despite many great works—including most recently “The Free Will Theorem,” with his colleague and friend Simon Kochen—Conway, as another colleague observed, might best be summed up as “The Seducer.” Not so much for his way with women, though he is thrice married and boasts more dalliances than even he can count (he tried once, during a bout of insomnia). But he’s more a seducer for the fetching way he draws people in with his vast repertoire of tales, mathy or otherwise, and for his charming ability to slide off on tangent upon tangent. In short, Conway is both a mastermind mathematician, and a masterful expositor and storyteller. 

Here’s a hebdomad (Conway’s word!) of facts, based on research for Genius At Play, The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway:

1. He’s not only a number nerd, he’s also a word nerd

When Conway learned that he’d been described as a seducer he was pleased as punch and promptly offered an etymological rundown: The root of the words seducer and seduction—“duc”—means “to lead.” A conductor leads the train. A deduction leads from one proposition to another. A reduction leads back. And a seduction, or a seducer, leads one astray. But in a good way! (One hopes.)

John Horton Conway Photo

John Horton Conway in his Cambridge office. (Photo: Ric Gemmell/Discover)

2. He did or did not date feminist author Germaine Greer

Telling tales runs in the family, and during a research trip back to his hometown Liverpool, Conway’s sister Joan and his four daughters recalled that way back when had a famous Australian lady friend at Cambridge, whose name it took them a moment to remember, but then they did, all five of them in unison: Germaine Greer!!!!! Conway refused to comment. So did Greer. The truth of the matter is lost to history.

3. He almost killed Stephen Hawking

One Cambridge tale that Conway loves to tell features his then landlord and colleague Stephen Hawking: The Hawkings came to tea, and Conway was keen to showoff what he considers his most brilliant invention: a matchbox rigged up to turn on a light switch inconveniently hidden behind a door. Hawking, himself having suffered for that light switch, now ingeniously conquered, began laughing and laughing, then laughing and coughing, and he couldn’t stop. Conway started to worry. Thankfully, the fit passed. “I hadn’t killed the great cosmologist after all,” he said. “And that was a great relief.”

John Horton Conway Photo

Conway poses with his book on group theory, the Atlas of Finite Groups. (Photo: Siobhan Roberts)

4. He crossed paths with Cromwell’s skull

Lord Protector of the Commonwealth Oliver Cromwell’s long-traveling skull was returned to his Cambridge alma mater in the 1960s and buried in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College. Conway was in attendance for the sumptuous dinner party and candle-lit consecration. Or was he?! At times his mischievousness proved a deliberately unreliable narrator of his own life. 

5. He enjoyed a private audience with the logician Kurt Gödel

Conway went to see Gödel in the early 1970s at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He hoped the god of logic might illuminate a broader use for the surreal numbers—Conway is proudest of this discovery, though he is disappointed the surreals have not yet been applied. Alas, Gödel could offer no such insight. Nonetheless, those ten± minutes count as ten of the most interesting minutes of Conway’s life.

John Horton Conway Photo

A caricature of John Horton Conway, who is known for his promiscuous curiosity and his magpie collection of discoveries, both trivial and deep. (Image: Simon J. Fraser)

6. His brain is being studied by the same neuroscientist who studied Einstein’s brain

Sandra Witelson, at McMaster University in Canada, subjected Conway to functional-MRI tests. She explained to him: “What I’m hoping is that we will be able see different parts of your brain lighting up when you are thinking in different ways. We want to see which part of your brain is particularly active when you’re thinking some of your great mathematical thoughts.” To which Conway replied: “Well, you know, I’m not sure that I can have great mathematical thoughts to order. I can have lesser thoughts.” To which Witelson replied: “That’ll do.”

7. His favorite word is “floccinaucinihilipilification”

He reckons it is the longest word in the Oxford English Dictionary, and he can provide a detailed etymology as well (nevermind!). Conway seeks to be a “Know-it-all,” but he also prides himself on the pursuit, the chase, and he delights in being a “Professional-non-understander.” The gist of the definition for floccinaucinihilipilificate he gives as: “Don’t care!” And that is Conway’s motto for life. He tries not to worry what other people think. He follows his promiscuous curiosity wherever it leads.

Siobhan Roberts is a journalist and biographer based in Toronto. Genius At Play has been featured in the New York Times, the Guardian, Quanta, Wired, Nautilus, and on the Numberphile YouTube channel.