|John Horton Conway|
Liverpool, Merseyside, England
|Alma mater||University of Cambridge|
|Doctoral advisor||Harold Davenport|
|Known for||Game of life, Look-and-say sequence|
|Notable awards||Berwick Prize (1971), Polya Prize (1987), Nemmers Prize in Mathematics (1998)|
John Horton Conway (born 26 December 1937, Liverpool, England) is a prolific mathematician active in the theory of finite groups, knot theory, number theory, combinatorial game theory and coding theory. He has also contributed to many branches of recreational mathematics, notably the invention of the cellular automaton called the Game of Life.
Conway is currently professor of mathematics at Princeton University. He studied at Cambridge, where he started research under Harold Davenport. He has an Erdős number of one. He received the Berwick Prize (1971), was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (1981), was the first recipient of the Pólya Prize (LMS) (1987), and won the Nemmers Prize in Mathematics (1998).
Conway's parents were Agnes Boyce and Cyril Horton Conway. John had two older sisters, Sylvia and Joan. Cyril Conway was a chemistry laboratory assistant. John became interested in mathematics at a very early age and his mother Agnes recalled that he could recite the powers of two when aged four years. John's young years were difficult for he grew up in Britain at a time of wartime shortages. At primary school John was outstanding and he topped almost every class. At the age of eleven his ambition was to become a mathematician.
After leaving secondary school, Conway entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge to study mathematics. He was awarded his BA in 1959 and began to undertake research in number theory supervised by Harold Davenport. Having solved the open problem posed by Davenport on writing numbers as the sums of fifth powers, Conway began to become interested in infinite ordinals. It appears that his interest in games began during his years studying at Cambridge, where he became an avid backgammon player, spending hours playing the game in the common room. He was awarded his doctorate in 1964 and was appointed as College Fellow and Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Cambridge.
He left Cambridge in 1986 to take up the appointment to the John von Neumann Chair of Mathematics at Princeton University. He is also a regular visitor at Mathcamp and MathPath, summer math programs for high schoolers and middle schoolers, respectively.
Conway resides in Princeton, New Jersey, United States with his wife and youngest son. He has six other children from his two previous marriages, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Among amateur mathematicians, he is perhaps most widely known for his contributions to combinatorial game theory (CGT), a theory of partisan games. This he developed with Elwyn Berlekamp and Richard Guy, and with them also co-authored the book Winning Ways for your Mathematical Plays. He also wrote the book On Numbers and Games (ONAG) which lays out the mathematical foundations of CGT.
He is also one of the inventors of sprouts, as well as philosopher's football. He developed detailed analyses of many other games and puzzles, such as the Soma cube, peg solitaire, and Conway's soldiers. He came up with the Angel problem, which was solved in 2006.
He invented a new system of numbers, the surreal numbers, which are closely related to certain games and have been the subject of a mathematical novel by Donald Knuth. He also invented a nomenclature for exceedingly large numbers, the Conway chained arrow notation. Much of this is discussed in the 0th part of ONAG.
In the mid-1960s with Michael Guy, son of Richard Guy, he established that there are sixty-four convex uniform polychora excluding two infinite sets of prismatic forms. Conway has also suggested a system of notation dedicated to describing polyhedra called Conway polyhedron notation.
Conway's approach to computing the Alexander polynomial of knot theory involved skein relations, by a variant now called the Alexander-Conway polynomial. After lying dormant for more than a decade, this concept became central to work in the 1980s on the novel knot polynomials. Conway further developed tangle theory and invented a system of notation for tabulating knots, nowadays known as Conway notation, while completing the knot tables up to 10 crossings.
He worked on the classification of finite simple groups and discovered the Conway groups. He was the primary author of the Atlas of Finite Groups giving properties of many finite simple groups. He with collaborators constructed the first concrete representations of some of the sporadic groups.
As a graduate student, he proved the conjecture by Edward Waring that every integer could be written as the sum of 37 numbers, each raised to the fifth power, though Chen Jingrun solved the problem independently before the work could be published.
He has also done work in algebra, particularly with quaternions.
For calculating the day of the week, he invented the Doomsday algorithm. The algorithm is simple enough for anyone with basic arithmetic ability to do the calculations mentally. Conway can usually give the correct answer in under two seconds. To improve his speed, he practices his calendrical calculations on his computer, which is programmed to quiz him with random dates every time he logs on. One of his early books was on finite state machines.
In 2004, Conway and Simon B. Kochen, another Princeton mathematician, proved the Free will theorem, a startling version of the No Hidden Variables principle of Quantum Mechanics. It states that given certain conditions, if an experimenter can freely decide what quantities to measure in a particular experiment, then elementary particles must be free to choose their spins in order to make the measurements consistent with physical law. In Conway's provocative wording: "if experimenters have free will, then so do elementary particles."
He has (co-)written several books including the ATLAS of Finite Groups, Regular Algebra and Finite Machines, Sphere Packings, Lattices and Groups, The Sensual (Quadratic) Form, On Numbers and Games, Winning Ways for your Mathematical Plays, The Book of Numbers, and On Quaternions and Octonions. He is currently finishing The Triangle Book written with the late Steve Sigur, math teacher at Paideia School in Atlanta Georgia, and in summer 2008 published The Symmetries of Things with Chaim Goodman-Strauss and Heidi Burgiel.