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.

Posted on April 14, 2020, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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