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Conway II

Following up on our post on John “Game of Life” Conway, Paul Alper points us to this informative obituary by Siobhan Roberts:

John Horton Conway was born on Dec. 26, 1937, in Liverpool, England, the third child and only son of Cyril and Agnes (Boyce) Conway. His father, an autodidact, had left school at age 14 and, with his photographic memory, made a living playing cards. Later he was a technician in the chemistry lab at the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, setting up experiments for students, among them George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

Wow! That’s something. And then on the sadder side, a reminder of the complexity of real life, even for someone who was famous for being brilliant and playful:

His first two marriages, to Eileen Howe and Larissa Queen, ended in divorce. . . . Dr. Conway persevered in finding the fun through triple bypass surgery, a suicide attempt and a number of strokes. . . .


And there were ever more games of Phutball, which Dr. Conway was not very good at.

This gives a whole new twist to the story in the P.P.S. from our earlier post.


  1. Bill Spight says:

    Here is a lecture by Conway that introduces surreal numbers.

    • jim says:

      That’s a classic sleep-inducing introduction!! Text-book example of how to put people to sleep. Pity the poor soul who has to speak after that!

      I’ll have to watch Conway later but the intro deserves to be highlighted for its banality. Dude is plugging the department and that might seem like a great idea since he has a star speaker, but wouldn’t he do better to give an brief and lively intro and then let the star take over? OK, he might communicate less data about the department and about math, but OTOH he might communicate a lot more excitement and interest by doing so.

  2. Kaiser says:

    This excellent article, also by Roberts, has more details on the surgery, suicide, etc. It’s in the Guardian.

    • Andrew says:


      That is indeed an excellent article. At the end it says that Roberts wrote a whole book about Conway. It’s funny, though. Conway had an amazing life, but after reading that article, I don’t have much desire to read a whole book about the guy!

  3. Anonymous says:

    As if to meld the “great man theory” of science with the “Game of Life”:

    (or look at this write-up:

    I tried playing a drinking game that involved taking a swig every time Wolfram said “I”, “I’m”, “I’d” or some variation. Man, he just can’t resist talking about himself.

    The likes of Taleb are hyping it as “huuuge”. It’s blatantly a sophisticated form of numerology reminiscent of Talmud scholars finding hidden numerical codes in the old testament. Wolfram’s locked himself into a dreary fantasy-land of quackery he’s never going to leave. It’s depressing to see how many on social media are willing to follow him down that rabbit hole. Einstein’s concerted cultivation of the celebrity genius shtick has ruined more talent over the last century than is commonly appreciated.

    • Andrew says:


      I like this bit from the Popular Mechanics article: “At its core, the Wolfram Physics Project aggregates the most important works in physics, including 800 pages of documents that Wolfram himself wrote.”

      Only 800 pages? If I were aggregating the most important works in statistics, I’d start with my 9000 published blog posts. That’s a lot more than 800 pages already, and that doesn’t even include the all-important comment threads.

      To be fair, that news article concludes on a skeptical note: “To be fair, the premise of the project is extremely trippy. . . . And in the past, the physics establishment has found Wolfram to be a controversial figure. But at the same time, so many of the greatest minds in physics and computer science are stuck at home right now. So what else is there to do but pursue a theory of everything?”

      As for Wolfram . . . what can I say? I followed the links, and the book he wrote when he was 12 is beautiful. The man really does have an aesthetic sense, and it seems to have served him well in software design, among other things.

      He writes that when he was in grad school, at his peak he was writing a physics paper every couple of weeks. I don’t see quite how that works: he links to his published papers and I don’t see any years with 26 papers—not even any with as many as 13—but I guess it must’ve been a short peak.

      And Wolfram writes: “Back in 1991 when I started working on A New Kind of Science, I’d also had the experience of rapid discovery. But what had happened then was that I hadn’t been able to stop—and I’d just dug in and gone on and on discovering things, for a decade.” I I I I indeed! He forgot to mention the people he hired to prove theorems for him.

      Also this: “I think if I had lived a century earlier I would have been a zoologist.” I think if I had lived a century earlier I would’ve been a poor person.

      That said, his pictures are cool. Even if he’s not discovering anything about physics, maybe he’s learning some interesting things about emergent properties of some stochastic processes. In any case, no harm in trying.

      Regarding your last point, I don’t know that the great-man theory has ruined Wolfram’s talent. He created this company that builds this unique software that lots of people use. That’s an excellent use of his talent. And the physics theorizing is fine, if for no other reason than that it’s motivated him to improve the software.

      • Anonymous says:

        A summary of the first few short paragraphs leaving out the unimportant bits:

        I Never Expected This … and for me incredibly exciting. …at some level I’ve been working towards this for nearly 50 years…. than I’d ever imagined. … Back when I used do theoretical physics for a living, I must admit I didn’t think much … I was more concerned … somehow I think I imagined … when I started studying … I made what was for me a very surprising … And this got me thinking … I soon realized that … I had a definite idea about… I had figured out … I devoted nearly 100 pages to this in my book A New Kind of Science.

        Going decades deep into numerology in an ever more desperate bid to be lauded-far-and-wide as the next Einstein qualifies as “ruined” in my estimation.

        • Andrew says:


          I disagree! Let’s condition on two undeniable properties of Wolfram: (A) his talent, and (B) his ambition. It may well be that B > A (to the extent that we can put these on a common scale), and it may also be that the hero status accorded Einstein, Feynman, etc.—the whole Nobel Prize thing and all the rest—was a contributing factor to B. Still, we have to consider (C) his accomplishments. My claims are:

          – C is impressive, even given A. There are lots of talented physics students; not so many build successful companies that produce a unique and useful product.

          – Arguably, B has contributed to C.

          You’re also focusing on (D) his dead ends, and (E) his buffoonishness. There’s no doubt that (B) has contributed to (D) and (E). But I don’t really care about (D) and (E), amusing as they are. To evaluate someone’s career, I think that his best accomplishments are more important than his worst.

          We all know of scientists who are celebrated, egotistical, and have contributed nothing of value to the world. Hypemeisters pure and simple. Wolfram has a lot of annoying hype, but he’s made important real contributions too. Maybe not the 24 papers he wrote that year in graduate school, but his software company. That’s useful, right?

          • Anonymous says:

            It would be fun to have a “write like Wolfram” contest. Here’s my entry:

            After pointing out a minor, yet deep, error in Feynman’s work, which I traced back to a mistake in Einstein’s papers I found while still in the third grade, I was thinking to myself, “self, you’re the brightest mind of most, possibly all, generations, surely you can use my new programming language (WolframLanguage TM) to simulate Creation even better than that cellular automaton known as God”. I got to work immediately. As you can see from the 1800 page book I wrote last night and posted on my excellent website, I succeeded even beyond my wildest dreams. It’s the culmination of 1/10000th of my life’s genius. Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, I immediately discovered how to represent “pure ego” in my simulation.

  4. Brent Hutto says:

    Andrew, I agree with your take on the value of Wolfram’s contribution to the world being quite separate from his later silliness and glory-grubbing. The great poet Wendell Berry issued this caution to those who might conflate the work with the man…

    A Warning To My Readers

    Do not think me gentle
    because I speak in praise
    of gentleness, or elegant
    because I honor the grace
    that keeps this world. I am
    a man crude as any, intolerant,
    stubborn, angry, full
    of fits and furies. That I
    may have spoken well
    at times, is not natural.
    A wonder is what it is.

    –from Clearing (1977) by Wendell Berry

  5. Martha (Smith) says:

    Andrew wrote, “He writes that when he was in grad school, at his peak he was writing a physics paper every couple of weeks. I don’t see quite how that works: he links to his published papers and I don’t see any years with 26 papers—not even any with as many as 13—but I guess it must’ve been a short peak.”

    He said he wrote those papers; he didn’t say he published them all.

    • Andrew says:


      Believe it or not, I thought of that, but . . . not only was he [Wolfram] publishing less than 26 articles a year, he never even published 13 in any year. Actually he only published 7 papers in the years in question. So it’s not that he wasn’t publishing all of them, it’s that he wasn’t publishing most of them. I assume he didn’t even submit most of them for publication. At some point it’s not clear whether it’s appropriate to count something as a “paper” if it never was in publishable format. If he published 19 papers and had 7 unpublished papers, that’s one thing. But 7 published and 19 unpublished . . . that’s a different story. Earlier in his story he refers to having had “10 papers to my name,” and he’s talking about publications. So I think it’s more likely that he’s just being clever in his storytelling and is saying that he was writing a paper every two weeks for a two-week period, and that was his peak.

      It’s all good. As discussed above, he’s done well with his life. A Wolfram who’d published twice as many papers but not created the company that sells the software, would not have been as valuable to the world as the Wolfram we actually have.

      P.S. Writing this comment was all worth it because I reread Wolfram’s post and notice this bit that I hadn’t caught on my first reading: “I think I [Wolfram at age 15] was viewed as an exotic phenomenon, usually referred to in a rather Wild-West way as ‘The Kid’.”

      I just love it that he thinks there’s something exotic about being referred to as “the kid” if you happen to be the youngest person in a group. What did he think they were going to call him? “Old man”?

      • Anonymous says:


        Nothing tops Wolfram (the Messiah of Science) announcing to the world the greatest ever imaginable discovery in physics with the title “I Never Expected This”!

        It’s like Kanye West beginning his grammy acceptance speech with, “shucks everyone, I never thought I’d be standing here…”

  6. Martha (Smith) says:

    Getting back to. Conway: A little while ago, someone pointed me to this article about the proof of a conjecture about the “Conway knot”:

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