Miskatonic University Press

Genius at Play

reviews mathematics

Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway, by Siobhan Roberts, is the best biography I’ve read in a while, and it’ll be in my top ten favourite books of 2015. Conway is a mathematician, an unruly digressive eccentric fascinating genius mathematician, and this is an unruly digressive eccentric fascinating biography, because no normal narrative structure (like Roberts used for her fine biography of straitlaced geometer Donald Coxeter) could get across what Conway is like. Conway’s such an unstoppable force he gets his own typeface in the book, so he can explain mathematics or tell a story or just interject.

Here’s a trailer Roberts did for the book:

Everyone in mathematics and computer science knows Conway, for the game of Life (which he grew to hate), combinatorics, games, surreal numbers (which inspired Donald Knuth to write a novel), group theory, the Doomsday algorithm (a great trick, and part of Conway’s regular shtick), the free will theorem, and much more. He’s done major work in many different areas of mathematics.

One of the delights of the book is how well it gets across Conway’s unceasing desire to know everything, especially mathematics, and his absolute excitement and delight in numbers and geometry and groups and games. He’s a genius. The way he is in this world is not the way that other people are.

Conway is quoted extensively in the book. I especially like this one, from near the end:

Richard Dawkins wrote a book before he wrote The God Delusion called Unweaving the Rainbow. Now, this title is taken from a few lines from Keats. He says, “Shalt thou unweave the rainbow?” And it’s a vaguely unscientific theme. He’s saying if you explain the rainbow, it is somehow making it less beautiful, by taking away the mystery from it. But everybody who knows anything about anything knows that the more you know, the more beautiful it is.

This is the same point Richard Feynman made:

Feynman said:

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says, “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty.

First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is, I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimetre; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colours in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting: it means that insects can see the colour. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Conway was talking about rainbows because he’s fascinated with them and and how they work—which, of course, most people don’t, or why you can sometimes see two rainbows, or that third and fourth rainbows are also possible. The quote continues, in classic Conway style:

And I think that is the theme of Dawkins’s book—he’s referring to Keats and saying, “No, it’s a good idea to unweave the rainbow.” I keep on meaning to catch Dawkins one day and interrogate him on how the rainbow is formed. Because I think if he’s written a book called Unweaving the Rainbow, he should actually succeed in unweaving the rainbow. Maybe he does, I don’t know, I haven’t read his book. So maybe he knows how the rainbow is formed, but it’s really quite conceivable that he doesn’t, because so very few people do.

This is an unusual book, and the only one I can think of that’s similar is Willeford by Don Herron, his biography of Charles Willeford, the great American novelist. (The Burnt Orange Heresy is the finest novel about modern art ever written.) When I first read it I didn’t appreciate how good it was. Herron knew Willeford. Willeford was a supreme storyteller (and bullshitter, in the best sense), and the usual biographical approach wouldn’t work with him, so Herron did it differently, with the kind of approach Roberts takes with Conway. Willeford still deserves a serious academic biography, but you wouldn’t get to know the man in that book like you do in Herron’s.

(By the way, if you’re ever in San Francisco, take Don Herron’s’ Dashiell Hammett walking tour. I went out with him, just the two of us, in 2008, one of the most memorable days of my life. He took me all over Hammett’s San Francisco, including where Brigid O’Shaughnessy shot Miles Archer, and most amazingly of all he was able to show me the apartment where Hammett lived when he wrote The Maltese Falcon—the apartment is the exact model for Spade’s. I’ll never forget that.)

Back to Genius at Play. I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not too interested in mathematics, it’s worth reading. Roberts and Conway do a fine job of explaining the math, but what’s most important is Conway himself, and his utter joy and complete involvement in what he does, same as a composer or painter might have, or, perhaps, that we all seek in our own lives. (Though probably with fewer marriages and affairs.)

Finally, here’s a Numberphile video with more from Roberts, where Conway goes to McMaster University so Sandra Witelson can run an fMRI on his brain. The grumpy visit is also described in the book.