John Horton Conway, the John von Neumann Professor in Applied and Computational Mathematics, Emeritus at the University, died on Saturday, April 11 from complications arising from COVID-19. The 82-year-old mathematician, famed for his invention of the “Game of Life,” is the first University faculty member known to have died from the novel coronavirus.
Conway died at the Parker nursing home in New Brunswick, N.J., where he had been in residence for nearly a year, several of his close friends confirmed. The nursing home did not allow him to have any visitors in the days leading up to his death.
“John Conway was an amazing mathematician, game wizard, polymath, and storyteller who left an indelible mark on everyone he encountered — colleagues, students and beyond,” said mathematics professor and department chair Igor Rodnianski in a University press release.
Known for his charisma and childlike curiosity, Conway was a “beloved member of the department, always ready to engage in mathematical conversations with anyone,” said the Hughes-Rogers Professor of Mathematics David Gabai GS ’80.
“Besides his regular office,” Gabai said, “he had two other ‘offices’ on campus.”
These “offices” were cozy nooks, where he would set up two chairs and a blackboard. “People would come from far away to talk to him. He spent much time in one or the other, talking to people, working on math,” said Gabai.
Often the center of attention, Conway gained a reputation for elaborate showmanship. He carried ropes, pennies, coat hangers, cards, dice, puzzles, models, and sometimes even a Slinky as props to share his infatuation with mathematics.
Once, when Conway was giving a talk on symmetry in brickworks, he was introduced by University President Emeritus and Professor of Economics and Public Affairs Harold Shapiro GS ’64. As Conway explained different brickwork designs and patterns that can be made with feet, he turned to Shapiro and made an unorthodox request.
“Would you mind taking off your shoes and socks, and walk along this path?” Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Simon Kochen GS ’59 recalled him saying. “Harold Shapiro did not agree, but it was really funny.”
“His lust for the seemingly trivial has consumed a remarkable amount of Conway’s time and energy,” wrote Siobhan Roberts in his biography of Conway, titled “Genius at Play.” Conway memorized the digits of pi up to 1,000 places. He invented and reinvented rules for games — a particular favorite in mathematical circles is Conway’s Wizard Puzzle, a whimsical riddle in determining the age of a wizard from conversations on a bus ride.
He also had an affinity for memory tricks. Among his favorites was performing a mental calculation to determine the day of the week, given any date. For the trick, Conway developed his “doomsday rule,” an algorithm that allowed him to calculate the day of the week within seconds.
To challenge himself to keep practicing, he set up the security codes on his computer such that he would have to answer 10 date questions correctly within the span of 20 seconds in order to log in.
Conway was also a regular presence at the Canada/USA Mathcamp for high school students, even as his health was deteriorating. Many of the young students grew enamored with his card tricks and showmanship.
“A remarkable number of young mathematicians met and bonded with Conway this way,” said Boris Alexeev GS ’13, who was Conway’s last graduate student.
One of the camp students, Jacob Tsimerman GS ’11, a prodigious young mathematician, remembered meeting up with Conway in the University math department to play games. They would play Phutball, a game of Conway’s invention, on a grid board with white and black stones.
“[Phutball] is arguably the greatest triumph of this man,” Tsimerman said in an interview for Conway’s biography. “And I don’t mean that condescendingly. It’s a great game.”
Sixty years ago, few would have guessed Conway would one day become a legend in mathematics.
“Throughout the early to mid-1960s ... Conway didn’t accomplish much,” Roberts wrote in the biography. “He spent the majority of his time playing games.”
According to Kochen, however, these games are what lay the foundation for more serious work, including perhaps his most famous invention.
In 1970, Conway invented the “Game of Life,” which is played on a two dimensional plane with “live” and “dead” square cells, and a series of deterministic rules. It was first published in the October 1970 issue of Scientific American.
He performed early experiments of the game on a Go board, in an era long before personal computers, and discovered behaviors that lead to vast insights in statistics, economics, biology, cognitive science, and cellular automation.
The Game of Life grew an almost cult-like following. Fifty years after its release, it continues to enjoy an active community of players, who are both professional and amateur mathematicians.
Conway once told Kochen that he is proudest of two accomplishments: his work on surreal numbers and the free will theorem.
In 2004, Conway and Kochen proved the free will theorem, which indicates that if an experimenter can freely choose what to measure in a particular experiment, then elementary particles can also freely choose their spins in order to make the measurements consistent with physical law. The theorem has important implications for quantum dynamics.
“In mathematics, there are many ordinary geniuses. They are like you and me, but a little bit better,” said Kochen. “John was different: He was a magical genius. His results always had a magical quality.”
Despite a life spent in mathematics, Conway thought he had one piece of unfinished business left.
“The one thing I would really like to know before I die is why the monster group exists,” said Conway in a 2014 interview on Numberphile.
For over 30 years, the monster group, “a beautiful, very large, symmetrical thing” in modern group theory, disconcerted Conway. “Every five years I think about it again,” said Conway. “It’s obviously not there by coincidence.”
In his doctoral dissertation, Alexeev worked on understanding the reason for the monster group’s existence. He was unable to achieve the “monstrous” results that Conway had hoped for.
“John’s attitude towards math is that he took everything seriously, and he took nothing seriously,” said Alexeev.
In addition to his wife, Diana, Conway is survived by seven children.