Daily Archives: April 14, 2020

End of Life

RIP John Conway.

We’ve lost not just a great man, but a formative influence on my youth.  Conway was one of my strongest and indeed fondest memories from my Cambridge days.  Most famous for a light entertainment, the “game of life”.  Now it seems a casualty of the coronavirus.

My first recollection of him goes right back to late July (I think) 1979, between the end of school a few weeks earlier and going up to Cambridge as a student that autumn.  We (future students) were invited up to Cambridge for a two-week pre-course giving us a flavour of the student life, with lectures and a whole lot of socialising, and most importantly (at least to me) freeing us of the vague dread that came from leaving the familiar (school and home) and taking a leap into the unknown.

Conway was not one of the main lecturers on that pre-course, but the single lecture he gave was certainly a highlight.  Ever the showman, in this context he was as much a fine stand-up comedian as great mathematician!  When he used his sock to rub out the blackboard, it kind-of helped me towards discarding the wretched things from my life.  His scruffy hair and beard (see anecdote below) are also attributes I’ve adopted.

A prop to that lecture was a magic cube, which he offered to audience members to try before demonstrating solving it.  I didn’t get my hands on it at the time, but I did subsequently manage to source one in the autumn term, when it became a practical exercise in Group Theory (a first-term lecture course, under a different lecturer).  About a year or so later that magic cube started to appear in the shops, and became madly popular under the name Rubik’s Cube.

I didn’t have any significant contact with Conway during my undergraduate years, but I did get to know him somewhat as a graduate student, when the doors to the DPMMS common room and one or two other venues opened to me.  As one of the leading lights of games there – from Backgammon (which at DPMMS was played like nowhere else) to the fiendish Phutball – he might almost have been a Bad Influence, though in a Good Way.  It was there that I observed his acolytes (including another somewhat-famous mathematician Simon Norton), and thought that too many of them were depressed and depressing people with no life.  I could also see that being my future if I remained in academia without at least a break, and it was on the basis of that that I made the decision that I would leave it and face the real world (at least for a while) after finishing Part III.

My final Conway anecdote comes from my last weeks in Cambridge in summer 1983.  I was walking down Kings Parade with my then-girlfriend (the woman I still really regret having split up with after all these years), and exchanged a wave with Conway as he passed in the other direction.  Once we were past, my girlfriend wondered why I had waved to that tramp!  Just to be clear, she was just expressing surprise, not disapproval or any such negative thing.

Requiescat in Pace.