Remembering Conway

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This is a very personal account. If you don't know me, and/or
you didn't know Conway, then it might not mean much to you.

This has been Tagged As Story.

This is impossible to write.

I'll try anyway.

John Conway has left us.
Gosper's Glider Gun
in Conway's Game of Life
I'd known of Conway since my early teens. I remember reading about his Game of Life in an old Scientific American someone gave me. The article (a quick search tells me) was published in October 1970, so I'm guessing I saw it in the early 70s, perhaps 1972. I was hooked.

It transpired that Conway himself ended up hating the Game of Life, although he mellowed in his hatred towards the last decade or so.

I never expected I'd meet him.

My under-graduate final year project was on the Banach-Tarski Theorem, sometimes called the Banach-Tarski Paradox, and when I was applying to go to Cambridge for my PhD I sent a copy, addressed to Conway. I never found out what happened to it, but I did subsequently learn that he never opened his mail ... he just left it lying around. People would open it out of curiosity, and if it seemed like it was important they would go and talk to him about it.

You can read more about the Banach-Tarski Theorem and why it's more interesting than people think here:
Or so I was told. It was never really clear what was fact and what was fiction, even (or perhaps especially) when Conway was telling you in person. Somehow it didn't really matter.

When I got to Cambridge and had been in the department a few weeks I finally asked who Conway was. The answer: "He's down there with the beard, sandals, and acolytes." I decided then not to become someone who hung around Conway for the sake of being around him. Maybe it was a good decision, maybe not.

As it happens, Conway came and spoke to me. I was learning to ride a unicycle, and on one occasion during the period when I was practising, but still not competent to ride it in the street, I was wheeling it along, and Conway trotted after me, caught me up, and asked something.

I have no idea what it was, I got such a shock. I'm reasonably sure I answered sensibly, though, because after that he would acknowledge me in passing. And so the acquaintance was made.

During my time at Cambridge I ended up playing a lot of backgammon. Too much, in retrospect. However, one bonus was that I became very proficient at playing fast. Really fast. Really fast.

I also learned about the different styles of game: the back game, the forward game, the hitting game, the running game, and so forth. These are something like Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock, in that for any one style, there is another style that's likely to beat it. So "proper" players, serious players, play a balanced style, and only tip into an extreme form of a style when the rolls of the dice and the play of your opponent dictate the way the game is going.

It's said that Conway never got very good at backgammon, but what was clear was that he got tired of people taking it seriously. He wanted a game to be fun, and so it was that I got to play against him more than most others. I'd choose a style, and play in an extreme form. He would counter, I would flip, he would adjust, and I would destroy my position and then attempt to rebuild it. And this was being done fast ... around a move every second or two. It wasn't high-quality play by any stretch of the imagination, but it was fun. So Conway would play.

kibitz: to offer unwanted advice or criticism; to be a busybody. The term can be applied to any activity, but is most commonly used to describe spectators in games such as contract bridge, or chess.
There was a tradition in the department that people would stand over the backgammon board and kibitz. They'd offer advice and suggestions about what moves to make, and what strategies to employ. Doing so at the speed people played required a succinct and precise vocabulary, and it was there that I learned how the language one uses affects the thought processes. I won't go full-on Sapir-Whorf at you, but when the words come easily, the concepts come with them - the vocabulary can be an enabler for thought.

  • Department of
  • Pure
  • Mathematics, and
  • Mathematical
  • Statistics
But when Conway and I played backgammon, even the DPMMS specialist vocabulary wasn't enough. No one could kibitz at the speed we were playing, and very few could figure out what we were doing anyway.

Mind you, neither could we. But as I say, it was fun. Tremendous fun.

Time moves on. Conway left for Princeton, I moved to Manchester, then Liverpool, then the Wirral. Then I bumped into him at a maths meeting of some description, I don't remember what. I said hello, and it clearly took a moment, but he remembered me, and we chatted inconsequentially.

But then we met again, Gathering for Gardner, MathFest, MOVES, here and there, and on each occasion we'd up spending some time chatting. He would explain to me what he was working on, and I'd play Watson to his Sherlock. What I especially liked was that over time, the performer would tone down. He was always the character, that was who he was, but there were times when he felt more ... authentic.

That's the wrong word ... I sometimes wish I were better at words.

Including Conway, Mark Mitton, Laurie Brokenshire,
me, Dan Garrett, Ethan Brown, Lenart Green, and others.

I particularly remember seeing him at MathFest in Washington DC, in 2015. Over the course of the conference we'd chatted in passing, as usual, and then on the last night I offered some assistance to get to his room. He'd had a bad stroke a few years earlier and had some difficulty walking, so company was sometimes welcome.
Selfie with Conway ...
neither of us is comfortable
I was up at 06:00, and down in the lobby. Those who know me will be a little surprised, but I was still a little jet-lagged, so it was 11:00 for my body clock. I had a simple breakfast of coffee and a muffin, and while sitting there Art Benjamin came down, ready to go. We had breakfast together, which was very pleasant.

It wasn't much later that Conway came down and joined us. Art had to leave for his plane, but Conway and I sat for a bit with people coming past, chatting for a bit, then moving on. It was great, because people always want to talk with Conway, so lots of people came by and stayed for a bit. I found it amusing to catch their side-glances at me, clearing thinking "Who is this person, and why is the renowned and famous Conway chatting with him ?!?"

In between the people stopping by, Conway recounted the story of his PhD, and how he was once nerd-sniped by Coxeter. I'll leave those for another post ... (Now here: Coxeter Once Nerd Sniped Conway )

Time came and I helped Conway into a taxi for the train station. To this day I still wonder if I should've gone with him, not because he needed the assistance, but simply to have more time with him. I had the time, but I didn't want to trespass on his time and outstay my welcome. As it happens we did meet again sporadically over the years.
People will talk about his brilliance, which was unquestionable. They will talk about his playfulness, which was ever-present. He was much larger than life, and could easily fill any room with his personality. That was a little more restrained over the last 5 years or so, but his curiosity was never dampened, let alone curtailed or quenched.

It could be difficult to get and hold his attention, because his mind was so sharp, and had so many things he wanted to play with, he could easily be side-tracked, and then you'd lost him.

But I found him kind, tolerant, generous, and even though I saw him rarely enough, I'm deeply saddened to know I won't see him again.

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