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In Memory of John Horton Conway

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Interesting Engineering recently reported on some of Covid-19’s tragic casualties in the fields of science and engineering. Amongst this list is John Horton Conway, the famed mathematician, best known for his "Game of Life" cellular-automata model. According to a memorial in the Communication of the ACM, Conway passed away on "April 11 of coronavirus at his home in New Jersey." Hackday wrote a tribute describing how Conway’s body of work spanned "combinatorial game theory, group theory, and theoretical physics." Of his influence on generations of programmers, it wrote:

Programmers everywhere are familiar with Conway’s Game of Life: whether they’ve written a version themselves or simply seen the mesmerizing action resulting from the cellular automata, it’s a household name in all homes where code is spoken.

In its obituary for John Conway, the Scientific American explained how The Game of Life used a few simple rules on a "grid of cells" to simulate the emergence of complex behaviour from a simple starting state. It wrote:

Even today, professionals and amateurs alike play with aspects of this game, marveling at different shapes and behaviors that emerge just by letting the squares go at it.

Complex structure emerge from simple rules in the Game of Life

In a 2014 interview with the Numberphile YouTube channel, Conway described his work on the Game of Life as "one incident in my mathematical life." Speaking of his desire that it not overcast his other accomplishments, he said "it’s nice to have other people value something I didn’t really value, in a way."

Another recent tribute came from Siobhan Roberts, author of Conway’s biography Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway. Roberts wrote of Conway's other accomplishments which included "profound contributions" to "number theory, game theory, coding theory, group theory, knot theory, topology, probability theory, algebra, analysis, combinatorics and more." Roberts wrote of Conway’s own greatest pride:

He would rather be famous for surreal numbers, the creation of which he was proudest...the surreals are a super-continuum of numbers including all the old-fashioned real numbers (integers, fractions and irrationals like pi) as well as those that go above, beyond, below and within, embracing all the infinites and infinitesimals.

Roberts also wrote of Conway’s Free Will Theorem which provides a mathematical and philosophical basis for free will. Roberts quoted the paper’s co-author, Dr. Simon Kochen, describing Conway as a ‘"magical genius" comparable to the late Richard Feynman.

In his interview with Numberphile, Conway talked about the world’s response to a 1970 Scientific American article which introduced his Game of LIfe to the world. Conway said "that got more reader correspondence than anything in the entire history of the magazine." Hackday wrote of the game of life and its effect on programmers:

...the effect on the person programming it for the first time can be long lasting. You could call it a mathematics gateway drug, grabbing the curiosity of the unsuspecting mind and pulling it down the rabbit hole of advanced mathematics discovery.

In an obituary recalling his many mathematical accomplishments, Quant Magazine summed up Conway’s depth of contribution:

Conway had the tendency — perhaps unparalleled among his peers — of jumping into an area of mathematics and completely changing it.


The late John Horton Conway

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