Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway

Siobhan Roberts. Bloomsbury, $30 (480p) ISBN 978-1-62040-593-2
Science writer Roberts (Wind Wizard) delivers a delightful, if scattershot, biography of flamboyant mathematician John Horton Conway (b. 1937), perhaps the greatest living genius unknown to the general public. Roberts first met Conway while researching The King of Infinite Space, her first book—a biography of mathematician Donald Coxeter. Egotistical yet charming, Conway leads a relentlessly disorderly existence and keeps no archives, so Roberts resorts to a mixture of oral history and journalism when telling his story, but few readers will complain. His fascination with games, numbers, knots, and words is positively childlike, and it has won him fame within his profession as well as among mathematically inclined laymen, including the late Martin Gardner. Conway invented the iconic “Game of Life” in 1970, a demonstration of how a basic pattern following simple rules will, over time, generate amazing complexity—offering clues to the origins of life itself. He also asserts that he has proved the existence of free will. Although Roberts tries to maintain chronology, the book overflows with digressions, anecdotes, interviews with colleagues, and monologues from her subject. Only the mathematically adept will follow Conway’s cheerful discourses into Leech lattices, the Lexicode, or assorted strange sequences, but most readers will enjoy the experience, learn a great deal, and share Roberts’s admiration. Agent: the Michelle Tessler Agency. (July)
Reviewed on: 05/04/2015
Release date: 07/14/2015
Genre: Nonfiction
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