GENIUS AT PLAY by Siobhan Roberts


The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway
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A biography of the brilliant mathematician John Horton Conway (b. 1937).

Roberts (Wind Wizard: Alan G. Davenport and the Art of Wind Engineering, 2012, etc.) met her subject when he helped vet a manuscript of her award-winning earlier work, King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, the Man Who Saved Geometry (2006). Now a distinguished professor of applied and computational mathematics at Princeton and a fellow of the Royal Society of London, Conway got his start at Cambridge, where he first achieved fame for his invention of the Game of Life in 1970. The “game” is now incorporated into computer programs that explore the possibilities of simulating human cognition and the potentialities of artificial intelligence and self-reproducing robots. Initially, participants played the game by manipulating stones on a square grid. At Conway’s instigation, a group of Cambridge friends joined him in investigating the possibility of starting with two groups of colored stones (one representing live cells and the others, dead cells). The aim was to observe how, by moving them according to a few simple rules, they might evolve into complex structures, depending on the initial configuration and the rules. The game gained popularity when Conway's friend Martin Gardner wrote about it in his Scientific American column. With the development of computer capabilities, it has proved to have important scientific applications in simulating the behavior of self-organizing systems in various fields, including population studies and artificial intelligence. The emergence of unexpected patterns provides an analogy for evolution. In the appendices, the author describes some of Conway's other contributions in applied mathematics, including the invention of new numbers that he named “surreal.” While he was becoming famous as a mathematician, Conway was cultivating an over-the-top personal style as a campus eccentric with an unconventional lecturing style. The book is enlivened by anecdotes provided by family, colleagues, and friends.

While nonmathematicians may have trouble comprehending Roberts’ mathematical achievements, they will enjoy this entertaining portrait of a charismatic genius.

Pub Date: July 14th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-62040-593-2
Page count: 472pp
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2015


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