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"Conway is a creative genius." --Martin Gardner An unabashed original, John Horton Conway is Archimedes, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Richard Feynman all rolled into one--a singular mathematician, with a rock star's charisma, a sly sense of humor, a polymath's promiscuous curiosity, and a burning desire to explain everything about the world to everyone in it. Born in Live "Conway is a creative genius." --Martin Gardner An unabashed original, John Horton Conway is Archimedes, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Richard Feynman all rolled into one--a singular mathematician, with a rock star's charisma, a sly sense of humor, a polymath's promiscuous curiosity, and a burning desire to explain everything about the world to everyone in it. Born in Liverpool in 1937, Conway found fame as a barefoot Cambridge professor. He discovered the Conway groups in mathematical symmetry, and invented the aptly named surreal numbers, as well as the cult classic Game of Life--more than a cool fad, Life demonstrates how simplicity generates complexity and the game provides an analogy for all mathematics and the entire universe. Moving to Princeton in 1987, as a mathemagician he deployed cards, ropes, dice, coat hangers, and even the odd Slinky as props to extend his winning imagination and share his mathy obsessions with signature contagion. He is a jet-setting ambassador-at-large for the beauties of all things mathematical. Genius At Play is an intimate investigation into the mind of an endearing genius, laying bare Conway's personal and professional idiosyncrasies. The intimacy comes courtesy of the man himself. He generously granted Roberts full access, though not without the occasional grudge and grumble: "Oh hell," he'd say. "You're not going to put that in the book. Are you?!?


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"Conway is a creative genius." --Martin Gardner An unabashed original, John Horton Conway is Archimedes, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Richard Feynman all rolled into one--a singular mathematician, with a rock star's charisma, a sly sense of humor, a polymath's promiscuous curiosity, and a burning desire to explain everything about the world to everyone in it. Born in Live "Conway is a creative genius." --Martin Gardner An unabashed original, John Horton Conway is Archimedes, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Richard Feynman all rolled into one--a singular mathematician, with a rock star's charisma, a sly sense of humor, a polymath's promiscuous curiosity, and a burning desire to explain everything about the world to everyone in it. Born in Liverpool in 1937, Conway found fame as a barefoot Cambridge professor. He discovered the Conway groups in mathematical symmetry, and invented the aptly named surreal numbers, as well as the cult classic Game of Life--more than a cool fad, Life demonstrates how simplicity generates complexity and the game provides an analogy for all mathematics and the entire universe. Moving to Princeton in 1987, as a mathemagician he deployed cards, ropes, dice, coat hangers, and even the odd Slinky as props to extend his winning imagination and share his mathy obsessions with signature contagion. He is a jet-setting ambassador-at-large for the beauties of all things mathematical. Genius At Play is an intimate investigation into the mind of an endearing genius, laying bare Conway's personal and professional idiosyncrasies. The intimacy comes courtesy of the man himself. He generously granted Roberts full access, though not without the occasional grudge and grumble: "Oh hell," he'd say. "You're not going to put that in the book. Are you?!?

30 review for Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jean

    This is a biography of the mathematician John H. Conway. Roberts quotes Conway throughout the book along with corroborating facts with other people who were there. Many of the mathematicians quoted in the book have their own biographies written. The book is written with great appreciation for Conway in spite of his serial philandering and absolute rejection of all responsibility for his personal affairs. Roberts covers Conway’s suicide attempt. Of course a book about a mathematician will have ma This is a biography of the mathematician John H. Conway. Roberts quotes Conway throughout the book along with corroborating facts with other people who were there. Many of the mathematicians quoted in the book have their own biographies written. The book is written with great appreciation for Conway in spite of his serial philandering and absolute rejection of all responsibility for his personal affairs. Roberts covers Conway’s suicide attempt. Of course a book about a mathematician will have math in it. He discovered the Conway groups in mathematical symmetry. His names is in group theory, game theory, knot theory, abstract algebra, geometry and his famous creation of Conway’s Game of Life, a set of rules for propagating a pattern that generates incredible complexity. The book is well written and at times hilarious. Most of the information comes from the author’s interviews with Conway. I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. Jennifer Van Dyck narrated the book. Van Dyck is a new narrator for me and I was impressed with her ability.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Thom

    Biography of mathematician John Horton Conway in three parts. Enough math and geometry to get the gist of his insights - definitely not overwhelming to the number phobic. Overseen by the subject, who is quoted liberally throughout, this is an interesting read. Conway was very active in number and knot theory, groups and combinatorial games, but the first line of most biographical entries is the Game of Life. That work (and related exchanges with Martin Gardner) make up the middle part of the book Biography of mathematician John Horton Conway in three parts. Enough math and geometry to get the gist of his insights - definitely not overwhelming to the number phobic. Overseen by the subject, who is quoted liberally throughout, this is an interesting read. Conway was very active in number and knot theory, groups and combinatorial games, but the first line of most biographical entries is the Game of Life. That work (and related exchanges with Martin Gardner) make up the middle part of the book; the other two are essentially before and after Life. An epilogue and appendices delve a little deeper into the math; a bibliography gives some direction for more. This is first and foremost a book about the mathematician, not the math. Roberts first met Conway at Mathcamp while researching her book on Donald Coxeter, one of his mentors. The quirky lifestyle of Conway has led to many anecdotes, and resulted in a solid year of editing this biography. In the end, she has captured the eccentric genius in a very readable format. I look forward to reading her book on Coxeter, King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, the Man Who Saved Geometry.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Chris Esposo

    Though nowhere near as well known as the other John of Princeton's mathematics department, John Nash (and there are many more noted Johns in the field and department for sure), Conway's contributions might end up being significantly more impactful societally and definitely deeper mathematically. This book does a good job explaining the subject areas he worked in, mostly discrete mathematics, with strong combinatorial motivations, and bring visibility to his little-known private life, which he wa Though nowhere near as well known as the other John of Princeton's mathematics department, John Nash (and there are many more noted Johns in the field and department for sure), Conway's contributions might end up being significantly more impactful societally and definitely deeper mathematically. This book does a good job explaining the subject areas he worked in, mostly discrete mathematics, with strong combinatorial motivations, and bring visibility to his little-known private life, which he was hesitant to reveal. There's some tragedy to reading the text now, as although Conway still lives, he has been suffering from ill-health recently, which had manifested themselves more profoundly around the time this book was being written. Like Nash, Conway did revolutionize a field called "Game Theory", more specifically, what is now known as combinatorial game theory, which as very little to do with the "Game Theory" of Economics that Nash's thesis touched. Though in this case, these works may end up influencing humanity much deeper and more directly through their contributions to AI, than the notion of the Nash Equilibrium, which however novel or clear from an academic sense, seems to be mostly a meaningless concept in either the practice of economics, or as a model of actual human behavior. Ironically, the notion is more relevant in application towards machine decision processes, like resource allocations within servers, than they are towards their original motivating problem. Besides that extra strange tidbit, the two seem totally different. Whereas John Nash could be characterized as a clean-cut square in his youth, Conway seems to have been a free-wheeling thinker with a mind far more open and accepting, especially in the social domains. His seminal work on the "Game of Life" which was done entirely with pen and paper, has gone on to propel the notion of cellular automata on the map, and has influenced works from a very wide swath of fields from computer scientist and applied mathematician Stephen Wolfram to late Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling. Probably the first agent-based model built and conceived of, one also sees the kernels of the formalism of Markov Decision Processes and other subjects that would inform the current work on Reinforcement Learning as well. So in a real sense, simulations, robotics, machine learning, AI, and computational and synthetic biology, and social sciences owe a tremendous debt to what Conway started. Yet, one discovers in the text, it is the discovery he is least fond of, given that is has crowded out attention from his other works, which he believes are more impactful. The book covers many of these as well. Including his contribution towards the classification of finite simple groups in algebra, a generational enterprise of which he is considered one of the central drivers. Yet, even in this endeavor, Conway is disappointed in the work, as he believes the classification, though correct, has failed to impart any deeper understanding of what this structure means, or why it exists. Here Conway makes a distinction between the technical process of "verifying" existence and understanding it, with his emphasis on the later. It is his opinion that mathematicians should seek to understand more and verifying is less important in this respect. Though not stated explicitly in the text, it would seem Conway might find sympathies among the constructivist school of thought in mathematics given these opinions. This leads to another observation, Conways work has touched many of the subject matters in the field of mathematics, from including some logic with his work on surreal number system, that led toward the "arithmetic" of games, algebra, number theory, computing, and even in his later years, applied mathematical work in the foundations of Quantum Mechanics. Though many of his contributions are currently under-appreciated within these professions, it is likely their impact will grow as time progresses and connections are made to his findings with current interests in these respective fields. Besides an overview of his technical works, the book also dedicates much to his personal life and behavioral peccadillos. Conway has been thrice married, with numerous flings, has 5 children, with a few of them also becoming mathematicians, and seems to have an egalitarian view on mathematics education. He believes most people could achieve his type of work if they were given the right teaching and mentoring experience, and Conway follows up this belief with long contributions to high school and collegiate math camps and enrichment programs. He put real action to those ideals. What we get is a portrait of a singular individual, who though socially obtuse (purposefully), was indeed still a human being with ideas and is relatable. His relatability and capability of human connection also probably accounts for the wide net of his works. As another thing that is clear from this text is beside his deep individual contributions, he was at the center or and promoted the collaboration of many other mathematicians. Ultimately it maybe this trait that will probably give Conway's legacy a longer and greater legacy relative to other accomplished mathematicians who were either too pompous or socially incapable to collaborate well within their careers. Overall a great read on a person more people should look into, and who has important works, some of which are fairly accessible to the general reader. Highly recommended

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jessy

    Such a fun book - not only an excellent character study of a one-of-a-kind man, but a collection of fascinating mathematical tidbits throughout the entire field (surreal numbers and their correspondence to games + the universality of the Game of Life blew my mind), since Conway was so prolific. You're taken on a whirlwind through game theory, group theory, math party tricks, knot theory, philosophy, physics, and more. The best takeaways spoke about new ways of thinking: On the role of calculation Such a fun book - not only an excellent character study of a one-of-a-kind man, but a collection of fascinating mathematical tidbits throughout the entire field (surreal numbers and their correspondence to games + the universality of the Game of Life blew my mind), since Conway was so prolific. You're taken on a whirlwind through game theory, group theory, math party tricks, knot theory, philosophy, physics, and more. The best takeaways spoke about new ways of thinking: On the role of calculation in math (I was personally surprised how important numerical calculations were for Conway's group theory contributions: "he does thousands of calculations, looks at thousands of special cases, until he exposes the hidden pattern and divines the underlying structure.") To concentrate on the calculation is misleading. It’s like asking an artist, “Where did you paint the person’s chin? Was it 1-foot-5 above the base of the picture, or 1-foot-6? And how far to the right was it?” Do you understand me? If you’re thinking about conceptual things, the measurements don’t matter...It’s rather unfortunate that we can’t just see these things. Because it means that I can only appreciate the beauty of them, truly, after I’ve have done the calculation. But the calculation isn’t the point. On the relationship between having fun and doing "significant" work: You know, when you play a game, if you learn to be good at it, you find what it is you should be thinking about. That is really rather subtle. And that’s what we do in mathematics. On Conway's urge to spread his love of ideas through teaching: “That’s part of his magic,” says Thurston. “He thinks a lot about how people will understand something, he thinks a lot about ways to communicate with people, to surprise and impress, not to keep them mystified, but to make them wake up and take note.” On how to think about the hardest things: If you can’t understand something, you can at least relate it to something else you don’t understand. On being a young researcher, and advancing human knowledge: If you have indeed discovered something, but then discover that someone else discovered it before you, consider yourself in good company, and mark your progress. If you find something already discovered 2,000 years ago, then 200, then 20, at least you are improving. And then, if you’re lucky, next maybe you’ll discover something new.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Roberto Rigolin F Lopes

    Watch out both your left and right {L|R}, there are galaxies of numbers here. Conway is a mathematician with infinite degrees of freedom and fun. Outrageous fella. Awful smart. Naturally obsessed with puzzles. Because mathematics is largest puzzle ever built, a sort of LEGO that you can create your own pieces or reuse some from friends. Amusing that life (evolution) has been wisely rewarding puzzle-solving with pleasure. Not like sex, but lasts longer! Conway would shout. He even created automat Watch out both your left and right {L|R}, there are galaxies of numbers here. Conway is a mathematician with infinite degrees of freedom and fun. Outrageous fella. Awful smart. Naturally obsessed with puzzles. Because mathematics is largest puzzle ever built, a sort of LEGO that you can create your own pieces or reuse some from friends. Amusing that life (evolution) has been wisely rewarding puzzle-solving with pleasure. Not like sex, but lasts longer! Conway would shout. He even created automata life himself. Surreal. Yeap, those as well. Knuth even wrote a cute book about Conway’s Surreal Numbers. And there is more... This biography is delicious in all dimensions.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Peter Flom

    John Horton Conway (inventor of the computer game "life", inventor of surreal numbers, etc) is a fascinating man and this is a wonderful biography capturing him in all his exasperating and intriguing ways. John Horton Conway (inventor of the computer game "life", inventor of surreal numbers, etc) is a fascinating man and this is a wonderful biography capturing him in all his exasperating and intriguing ways.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Josh Friedlander

    If you're going to write a book about a living person (as of the book's publication in 2015: Conway passed away earlier this year, seemingly from Covid-19), this is how to do it. Roberts has done a lot of research but synthesized it into a chatty, magazine-profileish book. It doesn't hurt that the subject is such a boisterous and garrulous character. (Maybe a little: Conway is open about everything, but often fabulates for the sake of a better story, and Roberts has to sort out the contradiction If you're going to write a book about a living person (as of the book's publication in 2015: Conway passed away earlier this year, seemingly from Covid-19), this is how to do it. Roberts has done a lot of research but synthesized it into a chatty, magazine-profileish book. It doesn't hurt that the subject is such a boisterous and garrulous character. (Maybe a little: Conway is open about everything, but often fabulates for the sake of a better story, and Roberts has to sort out the contradictions between his tales and the versions she hears from others.) Conway is for that reason an ideal book subject, not as brilliant as a Groethendieck or an Andrew Wiles but a broad-minded generalist who innovated in manifold smaller ways, always following his playful and hyperactive mind; and as someone with an outsized influence and inspiration beyond the mathematical world. Donald Knuth relates that a sign in his Cambridge department read "For number theory, see x; for algebra, see y; for analysis, see z; for anything else see Conway." The amazing thing about Conway is that this persona was entirely invented. In Roberts' telling, he realised as a shy and introverted teenager on the train to Cambridge that as he was going somewhere totally new he could create a new personality. Thus was born Conway the party animal, the narcissist, the womanizer, the raconteur, the constant gamer; for the entire rest of his life! Hanging out with Conway we get a tour of his great discoveries, starting with the eponymous Game of Life (which he's sick of discussing), the Conway groups (including the monstrous moonshine - Conway, a lover of etymology, had a flair for naming things), surreal numbers, and more trivial ones like "phutball" and the FRACTRAN language. But for Conway, the boundary between serious and trivial never mattered much. (Nitpick: the Audible reader, Jennifer Van Dyck, mispronounces the Cambridge college where Conway studied - a tricky one [Gonville and Caius] but it comes up a lot. [Also the language TeX, but that only appears once.])

  8. 5 out of 5

    Bruce

    Perhaps for those who prefer Ulysses to The Count of Monte Cristo. The math itself is generally kept at a “let’s not lose the mathphobic folks” level. That leaves: the process of creating/discovering the math, standard biographical stuff (place of birth, favorite cereal etc.), Conway vignettes, and lots of Conway quotes. The exposition of the creation/discovery process was far too discursive for my taste; with the narrative jumping all over the place, I couldn’t engage with any of the stories. ( Perhaps for those who prefer Ulysses to The Count of Monte Cristo. The math itself is generally kept at a “let’s not lose the mathphobic folks” level. That leaves: the process of creating/discovering the math, standard biographical stuff (place of birth, favorite cereal etc.), Conway vignettes, and lots of Conway quotes. The exposition of the creation/discovery process was far too discursive for my taste; with the narrative jumping all over the place, I couldn’t engage with any of the stories. (Perhaps some deeper point about the creative process was being made here, but that sort of thing is above my head.) Conway’s third wife summarizes the standard biography stuff: “I think John [Conway] is the most selfish, childlike person I have ever met.” Regarding vignettes, I won’t spoil them, but do not expect a whole lot of Feynman like escapades. That brings me to Conway’s quotes. “Were Conway not so long-winded, this biography might have wrapped up some time ago.” Conway’s expansiveness would have been fine, except that I could not comprehend his Yoda like pronouncements. To sum up, if you like the following passage, I suspect you will love this book: “[Conway and his co-authors] would engage with a game, interface with it on a metaphysical level. ‘With a game, you shouldn’t do anything as vulgar as play it,’ said Norton.” But I am vulgar, and even worse, an engineer, a decidedly non-genius one at that.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Bethany

    *I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.* Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway is, hands down, the best biography I have read since The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a phenomenal portrait of an incredible mathematician and man. I have a fairly decent mathematical base (my dad is a mathematician) so while I didn't understand much of the math contained here, I didn't find it distracting or overwhelming. What was awkward was the numb *I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.* Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway is, hands down, the best biography I have read since The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a phenomenal portrait of an incredible mathematician and man. I have a fairly decent mathematical base (my dad is a mathematician) so while I didn't understand much of the math contained here, I didn't find it distracting or overwhelming. What was awkward was the number of times I laughed aloud while reading it on the airplane and in airports. This is charming, educational, and just plain fun. If you are debating reading this book once it's published, stop debating right now and just put it at the top of your list. It's so very, very wonderful.

  10. 5 out of 5

    nikkia neil

    Thanks Bloomsbury USA and netgalley for this arc. Awesome biography! After I read this book, I looked Conway up a youtube. Wish I could have understood the games more, but just reading about how he never stopped learning and having fun with math was cool.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Konrad Senf

    Roberts has produced a compelling sketch of Conway both as a (highly creative) mathematician and as an individual, and somehow also managed to make the fascination of (more or less pure) mathematics palpable for the layperson. Through their (Roberts and Conway’s) journeys and (often humorous) interactions, we gain a small window into Conway’s background, work ethic, habits, mindset, and struggles (alongside refreshing hints of how at least some of his image was consciously constructed), all of w Roberts has produced a compelling sketch of Conway both as a (highly creative) mathematician and as an individual, and somehow also managed to make the fascination of (more or less pure) mathematics palpable for the layperson. Through their (Roberts and Conway’s) journeys and (often humorous) interactions, we gain a small window into Conway’s background, work ethic, habits, mindset, and struggles (alongside refreshing hints of how at least some of his image was consciously constructed), all of which the academic in me would love to draw some lessons from. Bonus neuroscience content: Towards the end of the book, they pay a visit to Sandra Witelson, the neuroscientist who has made it her mission to study the brains of individuals thought to have remarkable minds. I am only very loosely acquainted with her work, so I may just be missing the complete picture, but I found myself nodding along to the more skeptical stance of neuroscience-layman Conway in response to some of her thoughts and methods, such as when she said, “I have people asking me whether Einstein’s brain got to be the way it is because he did so much physics. And of course I think it is the other way around. I think he did so much physics because his brain had a certain anatomy.” I doubt her narrative, but that is far from the point of the book, so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say that I don’t think that her fMRI studies of Conway will produce any meaningful insights into his creative ingenuity. I took a lot of additional pleasure in the vivid scenes of his life in Cambridge (between the 50s and the 80s), both in the sense of its historical insights, as well as that reminiscent delight of tracing a historical narrative in a physical place that one is (at least slightly) familiar with. I really enjoyed this trip, and look forward to further encounters with mathematical ideas and concepts (and personalities). (Interestingly, the "beauty and truth" of mathematics, as propagated here, conveniently show the seduction with which certain pockets of theoretical physics may have gotten lost in math.)

  12. 5 out of 5

    Paulo Glez Ogando

    Conway is a prolific mathematician, active in theory of finite groups, knot theory, number theory or recreational maths. He is kind of famous for his invention of the Game of Life, but also another games like Sprouts or Phutball, even a new numerical system, the surreal numbers. A little eccentric, there is no doubt that John H. Conway is a genius. And as such, his career is very interesting. The author says the only way to write a biography of him was with Conway speaking a lot for himself, for Conway is a prolific mathematician, active in theory of finite groups, knot theory, number theory or recreational maths. He is kind of famous for his invention of the Game of Life, but also another games like Sprouts or Phutball, even a new numerical system, the surreal numbers. A little eccentric, there is no doubt that John H. Conway is a genius. And as such, his career is very interesting. The author says the only way to write a biography of him was with Conway speaking a lot for himself, for he is a great talker. She says: «and while the volume of primary source material doesn't dictate the length of a book, Conway's talent for chattering on guaranteed his biography would be something more than a jumped-up character sketch—he's hard to turn off, and he's difficult to condese». So, the information for the book comes from a main source: Conway himself, to whom Roberts quotes throughout the entire book. His interventions are fresh, witty and sometimes hilarious. Besides, she also interviewed people close to him, both his family and his colleagues. In this book there is a lot of his mathematical career, and only some brief explanations of his personal life. You will find here the mathematician rather than the person. I like this approach, for although his life partly explains his personality and his manners, it is his profesional life what I am more curious about. Roberts explores Conway's suicide attempt, but she only but she does not go too deep into his love affairs.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jon

    We mathematicians are, in general, an unconventional collection of people, sometimes to an extreme that defies the bounds of polite society. Ever since I was indoctrinated into this order, I have wondered whether this disregard for norms was intrinsic. I.e., was it similar to a psychiatric condition, where a mathematician is simply unable to meet societal norms -- or at least only able to do so with great difficulty? Or is it like the picture of a star athlete -- someone who is so good at someth We mathematicians are, in general, an unconventional collection of people, sometimes to an extreme that defies the bounds of polite society. Ever since I was indoctrinated into this order, I have wondered whether this disregard for norms was intrinsic. I.e., was it similar to a psychiatric condition, where a mathematician is simply unable to meet societal norms -- or at least only able to do so with great difficulty? Or is it like the picture of a star athlete -- someone who is so good at something that not enough people are willing to say "no". For some reason, it did not occur to me until recently that both possibilities could be true, depending on the mathematician. As I read through this book, I became steadily convinced that Conway was in the second camp. He was eccentric in ways that inconvenienced and hurt others, and he did so because he could. As it turns out, I could have saved myself the trouble of making that judgement by skipping to the last chapter. Therein is this quote from Diana, his third wife, "I think John is the most selfish, childlike person I have ever met. One of the reasons I find that so intolerable is that I know damn well he can be human if he cares enough." I give the author great credit for immersing me in the world of John Conway, to the extent that I spent my reading time thinking about Conway rather than the prose.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Val Dusek

    Since, sadly, Conway recently died of Coronavirus, this biography should find a wide readership and make the author a good deal of money. However, it is unfortunate that, though readers will be entertained and amused by Conway's pranks and numerous eccentricities, the opportunity to interest and educate general readers in his mathematics has been missed. The author clearly understands hardly anything about the mathematics described. There is some barely, halfway decent discussion of infinite set Since, sadly, Conway recently died of Coronavirus, this biography should find a wide readership and make the author a good deal of money. However, it is unfortunate that, though readers will be entertained and amused by Conway's pranks and numerous eccentricities, the opportunity to interest and educate general readers in his mathematics has been missed. The author clearly understands hardly anything about the mathematics described. There is some barely, halfway decent discussion of infinite sets toward the beginning and some about Conway's work with multi-dimensonal spaces, but the book is padded with things such as a long list of names constellations, which has a little to do with Conway's interest in counting or even with astronomy in general. The book is praised by reviewers for not scaring readers away with technical mathematics, which is good, but it is unfortunate that the work was not written by someone who not only can write popularly and humorously, as does Roberts, but has some knowledge of Conway's mathematics. Amusing but disappointing.

  15. 4 out of 5

    William Schram

    John Horton Conway was a brilliant mathematician. Siobhan Roberts examines his life and influence in a series of dialogues. Unfortunately, Conway died amidst this COVID-19 pandemic. Honestly, before this book, I had only heard of Conway from his Game of Life. This fact would have disappointed him. He did several things in game theory, geometry, geometric topology, group theory, number theory, algebra, analysis, algorithmics, and theoretical physics. He loved games and puzzles. Finally, he had an John Horton Conway was a brilliant mathematician. Siobhan Roberts examines his life and influence in a series of dialogues. Unfortunately, Conway died amidst this COVID-19 pandemic. Honestly, before this book, I had only heard of Conway from his Game of Life. This fact would have disappointed him. He did several things in game theory, geometry, geometric topology, group theory, number theory, algebra, analysis, algorithmics, and theoretical physics. He loved games and puzzles. Finally, he had an Erdos number of 1, since he was a co-author with Paul Erdos. Siobhan Roberts wrote this book in 2015, allowing him to interview Conway.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Peter Herrmann

    Probably in terms of research, as well as countless hours - over years - spent by the author with Conway himself, this book ought to rate 5-stars. But had too many musings/ramblings of Conway which were often whimsical and/or 'fabulous' (as in 'fable') and I found myself skimming over those. The examination of Conway was quite exhaustive. And exhausting - he must be an exhausting person to have to live with. For some reason I didn't find this book as compelling as Roberts' earlier book about the Probably in terms of research, as well as countless hours - over years - spent by the author with Conway himself, this book ought to rate 5-stars. But had too many musings/ramblings of Conway which were often whimsical and/or 'fabulous' (as in 'fable') and I found myself skimming over those. The examination of Conway was quite exhaustive. And exhausting - he must be an exhausting person to have to live with. For some reason I didn't find this book as compelling as Roberts' earlier book about the geometer Coxeter, so I've just rated it 3-stars (perhaps unfairly).

  17. 5 out of 5

    Anirudh Wodeyar

    I gave it 5 stars for the simple reason that I've never read a book like this, let alone a biography. It was simply unique in how it set out to frame its subject, a mathematician dealing in truly abstract spaces. I can't say I know that much more about surreal numbers now that I did before reading the book, but I did get a sense of what it meant to think about them and that was something. Also, I know far more about the Game of Life than I care to now. I gave it 5 stars for the simple reason that I've never read a book like this, let alone a biography. It was simply unique in how it set out to frame its subject, a mathematician dealing in truly abstract spaces. I can't say I know that much more about surreal numbers now that I did before reading the book, but I did get a sense of what it meant to think about them and that was something. Also, I know far more about the Game of Life than I care to now.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Stuart Neil

    A curiously interesting fellow that I thought I had never heard of until I got to the part about cellular automata . Its a good read and he did not have the sort of Life that I had imagined maths professors led. It’s an easy to read book that draws you in, with the author being part of the story while not getting in the way.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Shivam Nadimpalli

    3.75/5. Couldn't get through the whole book, gave up ~80% of the way through, ended up just skimming through the last 20%. 3.75/5. Couldn't get through the whole book, gave up ~80% of the way through, ended up just skimming through the last 20%.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Bill Yancey

    Entertaining. Occasionally boring.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jovany Agathe

    genius

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jason Evans

    tight

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Yan

    To LIFE!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Edd Simmons

    This is a nice alternative to John Nash and yet still math heavy.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Guy McArthur

    Utterly fascinating and continuously amazing.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Richard Zhang

    Jordan Ellenberg's review of the book on the Wall Street Journal is pithy and accurate: Will you like this book? Here’s a simple test. What’s the rule that produces the sequence 1, 11, 21, 1211, 111221, 312211 . . . ? This is Mr. Conway’s “look-and-say” sequence, so called because each number (after the first) is what you get when you look at the previous number and say it aloud: “one one; two ones; one two, one one; one one, one two, two ones . . .” If that makes you laugh with surprise, as it di Jordan Ellenberg's review of the book on the Wall Street Journal is pithy and accurate: Will you like this book? Here’s a simple test. What’s the rule that produces the sequence 1, 11, 21, 1211, 111221, 312211 . . . ? This is Mr. Conway’s “look-and-say” sequence, so called because each number (after the first) is what you get when you look at the previous number and say it aloud: “one one; two ones; one two, one one; one one, one two, two ones . . .” If that makes you laugh with surprise, as it did me, you’ll like Mr. Conway, and you’ll like “Genius at Play.” If not, you might want to quit here and go read something improving about the Greek debt crisis.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Romanette

    Roberts has written a thorough, readable biography of Donald Coxeter, but this is a very different kind of book. Conway has clearly spent his whole life creating and projecting an image of himself, and despite communications with his colleagues and family, Roberts has not really penetrated it. In fact, by spending months with him, she seems to have bought into it. Conway's words are presented in a different font, like those of Jesus in the Bible. While many modern mathematicians exhibit playfuln Roberts has written a thorough, readable biography of Donald Coxeter, but this is a very different kind of book. Conway has clearly spent his whole life creating and projecting an image of himself, and despite communications with his colleagues and family, Roberts has not really penetrated it. In fact, by spending months with him, she seems to have bought into it. Conway's words are presented in a different font, like those of Jesus in the Bible. While many modern mathematicians exhibit playfulness -- having long since ceased worrying about the nature of the connection between mathematics and reality and taking pleasure from the richness of the worlds of their imagination -- few if any have raised it to the level which Conway has in being the motor of their thinking. And few if any have lived such a self-indulgent personal life. He leaves his mail unopened, he does not use e-mail, he relies on his wives and colleagues to filter out most contacts, he improvises his class presentations. He rarely feels a need to publish, although he measures his intellectual functioning by his ability to generate a publication-worthy idea. He relies on his wives to mediate his worldly affairs and sleeps around whenever the opportunity arises. Roberts seems never to confront him about any of this, or delve into how he makes others feel (failing to probe others' refusal to discuss this), she merely presents them as aspects of his curious and unique personality. Perhaps he is just a quaint relic of Oxonian quirkiness, but personally I can't wait to hear how the female mathematicians and physicists of this generation handle their relationships.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Clay

    I started this biography in the hopes of learning something about the mathematics that Conway has developed. Since the major points in his career are tied to the major discoveries that JHC has dabbled in, this book gave me that peek into some of the details of his work on Game of Life, surreal numbers, games, symmetry, simple sporadic groups, and other endeavors. In all things, he strived to find/develop the simplest explanation or proof, which gave me the chance to glean something out of the wi I started this biography in the hopes of learning something about the mathematics that Conway has developed. Since the major points in his career are tied to the major discoveries that JHC has dabbled in, this book gave me that peek into some of the details of his work on Game of Life, surreal numbers, games, symmetry, simple sporadic groups, and other endeavors. In all things, he strived to find/develop the simplest explanation or proof, which gave me the chance to glean something out of the wide and esoteric topics that have spanned his academic career. Conway's life story is filled with its ups and downs, as one might expect from a biography. While a brilliant thinker and mathematician, he has his "absent-minded professor" quirks and other faults. The author was able to talk with a wide range of people that have dealt with JHC in some capacity (colleague, student, collaborator, etc.). All have glowing things to say, but several reveal some of Conway's less than stellar moments. In the end, this was a very even and enlightening treatment of Conway's life.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Joe Wezorek

    It's a good book if you are interested in its subject, but even then gets repetitive. Basically I am not sure who the audience is here: if you already know about Conway's actual work at any kind of nontrivial level, you aren't going to need Siobhan Robert's explication of those topics, but if you don't know anything about the relevant mathematics -- e.g. group theory, etc. -- her coverage of these topics isn't going to be enough to be helpful. So I'd say you probably know if you should read this b It's a good book if you are interested in its subject, but even then gets repetitive. Basically I am not sure who the audience is here: if you already know about Conway's actual work at any kind of nontrivial level, you aren't going to need Siobhan Robert's explication of those topics, but if you don't know anything about the relevant mathematics -- e.g. group theory, etc. -- her coverage of these topics isn't going to be enough to be helpful. So I'd say you probably know if you should read this book. If you know who John Horton Conway is and who Martin Gardner is and who Stephen Wolfram is and who Roger Penrose is and you are interested in the weirdness of the Monster Group and the crazy fecundity of Conway Life etc. then you probably will enjoy reading through this book even if you end up skimming parts. Otherwise, I cant say I'd recommend it. A biography like this can't instill an interest in mathematics in someone.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Eugene Miya

    I enjoyed it, read it faster than Siobhan Roberts's book on Coexeter King of Infinite Space. Should have also mentioned John Holland's work on cellular automata. I need to transfer over progress notes. If Roberts and Conway lack anything, they don't mention John Holland's work in cellular automata. It's a biography about a person who is uncertain that he wants a biography. I need to tell other friends about this book. I feel sorry that John is only going to be remembered for Life. He really has I enjoyed it, read it faster than Siobhan Roberts's book on Coexeter King of Infinite Space. Should have also mentioned John Holland's work on cellular automata. I need to transfer over progress notes. If Roberts and Conway lack anything, they don't mention John Holland's work in cellular automata. It's a biography about a person who is uncertain that he wants a biography. I need to tell other friends about this book. I feel sorry that John is only going to be remembered for Life. He really has other interesting games (just chatting about dots and boxes with another friend).

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