In Memoriam John Conway

John Horton Conway FRS (26 December 1937 – 11 April 2020) was an English mathematician active in the theory of finite groups, knot theory, number theory, combinatorial game theory and coding theory. He also made contributions to many branches of recreational mathematics, most notably the invention of the cellular automaton called the Game of Life.

Game of Life is one of the early examples of a cellular automaton. His initial experiments in that field were done with pen and paper, long before personal computers existed.

Since the game was introduced by Martin Gardner in Scientific American in 1970, it has spawned hundreds of computer programs, web sites, and articles. It is a staple of recreational mathematics. From the earliest days, it has been a favorite in computer labs, both for its theoretical interest and as a practical exercise in programming and data display. Conway used to hate the Game of Life — largely because it had come to overshadow some of the other deeper and more important things he has done.
Nevertheless, the game did help launch a new branch of mathematics, the field of cellular automata.

“His swath was probably broader than anyone who ever lived,” said the mathematician Neil Sloane, a collaborator with Dr. Conway and the founder of the On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. “I’ve worked with a lot of people, and he was the fastest at solving a problem and would pursue a topic as far as it would go.” (The two were co-authors of 50 papers and published the 706-page book “Sphere Packings, Lattices and Groups.”)

Conway received the Berwick Prize (1971), was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (1981), was the first recipient of the Pólya Prize (LMS) (1987), won the Nemmers Prize in Mathematics (1998) and received the Leroy P. Steele Prize for Mathematical Exposition (2000) of the American Mathematical Society. In 2001 he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Liverpool.
His nomination, in 1981, reads:

                 A versatile mathematician who combines a deep combinatorial insight with algebraic                           virtuosity, particularly in the construction and manipulation of "off-beat" algebraic                               structures which illuminate a wide variety of problems in completely unexpected ways.                       He has made distinguished contributions to the theory of finite groups, to the theory of                         knots, to mathematical logic (both set theory and automata theory) and to the theory of                         games (as also to its practice).

In 2017 Conway was given honorary membership of the British Mathematical Association.
Math, Dr. Conway believed, should be fun. “He often thought that the math we were teaching was too serious,” said Mira Bernstein, a mathematician and a former executive director of Canada/USA Mathcamp, an international summer program for high-school students. “And he didn’t mean that we should be teaching them silly math — to him, fun was deep. But he wanted to make sure that the playfulness was always, always there.”

Born and raised in Liverpool, Conway spent the first half of his career at the University of Cambridge before moving to the state of New Jersey in the United States, where he held the title of John von Neumann Professor Emeritus at Princeton University for the rest of his career. On 11 April 2020, at age 82, he died of complications from COVID-19.


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