John Horton Conway, a ‘Magical Genius’ in Math, Dies at 82.

Siobhan Roberts writes The New York Times’s obit for mathematician and “Magical Genius” John Conway, most famous for inventing the computer Game of Life. Cause of death: COVID-19

Martin Gardner, the longtime mathematical games columnist for Scientific American, said that when the game went viral on the internet, “with addicts programming it at home and at work — one quarter of the world’s computers were playing it.”

Conway’s colleague, Princeton mathematician Simon Kochen, said there are two kinds of geniuses in mathematics and physics, ordinary geniuses. Ordinary geniuses just seem to be people who work hard.

“But then there are the magical geniuses,” he added. “Richard Feynman was a magical genius. And the same always struck me about John — he was a magical mathematician. He was a magical genius rather than an ordinary genius.”


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.”

People like Conway seem to be to be the truly blessed people in the world. They work hard at what they do, they excel at it, and the work is pure joy to them. We’re all advised to do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life – it will all be play to you – but very few people can achieve that.

I became fascinated by Conway’s game around 1983-84 or so, and wrote a program in the computer language Basic to play it on an early IBM PC. Each turn took a half-hour!

Mitch Wagner @MitchWagner