Another week, another opportunity to gain more appreciation of the skills that are important to my profession. Last week in this space I reflected on a lecture by Richard Preston, best-selling author of nonfiction books on astronomers, Ebola researchers, and climbers of 300-foot trees, among other topics.
This week I get to write about a presentation by mathematician John Conway, and his dogged biographer, Siobhan Roberts, appearing in “a conversation,” as the PR people would call it, at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street. Conway, now a professor emeritus at Princeton, is the man who may be best known for one of his creations that he shrugs off as a pleasant diversion, the Game of Life.
Roberts is an award-winning science writer who shrugs off her science and math chops as something she left behind in high school before pursuing a BA in history at Queen’s University in Ontario, Class of 1994. History degree notwithstanding, Roberts won four National Magazine Awards as a science writer, and wrote “The King of Infinite Space,” the biography of Donald Coxeter, the acclaimed University of Toronto mathematician; and “Wind Wizard,” the story of Alan Davenport, considered the father of modern wind engineering.
After six years of research and writing, Roberts completed “Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway.” Seeing her subject in person, you realize that Roberts has done almost exactly what Preston describes as his mission: To create a “sharply detailed” view of a life that would otherwise “be lost to history.”
The Guardian newspaper has called Conway “the greatest living genius unknown to the general public.” It seems fair to say that Roberts’s 454-page biography brings that genius to the attention of — maybe not the general public — but at least the public willing to spend a few days with a challenging book.
The work needed to create that result becomes evident just by watching the interaction of biographer and subject at Labyrinth. During the conversation Conway predictably shrugs off his Game of Life and instead talks about his favorite achievement: “the discovery of surreal numbers.” Surreal? Even the collective wisdom of the Labyrinth audience, which includes some accomplished mathematicians and scholars, including physicist Freeman Dyson, does not seem to fully grasp Conway’s surreal numbers.
At one point a questioner — not a mathematician — asked Conway if he found the surreal numbers or invented them. “I did not invent them,” Conway bristles in response. “That’s not a phrase I would ever use. They surprised me. How could I have invented them? I saw some surreal numbers in a rather curious place. But I didn’t invent them — I wasn’t deliberately putting things together.”
Another man in the audience, who I suspected was a mathematician, comes back to the question. Again Conway insists the surreal numbers were there — really, you might say — and he just found them. It’s more than semantics here, I suspect. At one point Conway seems to have the last word: “It’s very simple,” he says, “probably too simple for most people to understand.”
So how did Roberts manage to capture the essence of both Conway’s character and his mathematical thinking? As she says at the Labyrinth event, “I’m not a mathematician. I’m a humanist and a journalist. It’s a deep dive for me.”
I communicated with Roberts in 2015 when the Conway book first came out. She referred me to an interview she had done with the New York Times:
“Before writing Genius at Play, the first-person approach, sharing the journalistic experience, is a tactic I’d never been drawn to. I’m not so interested in writing about myself. However, that said, a couple of factors made this approach seem crucial and really quite unavoidable with Genius At Play.
“First, there were no archives or written records to draw upon. The one asset I had was Conway himself. I circled around numerous times. That’s how I get at the mathematics. I ask a lot of rather stupid questions and go back repeatedly to correct what I have no doubt gotten all wrong the first time around.”
Unlike some reporters who just give up taking notes and practically stop listening when what is being said is incomprehensible to them, Roberts hung in there. “I listened and didn’t worry about understanding. Then, eventually, I had to interrupt Conway and ask questions, because I did need to understand at least the gist of things.”
In addition she wanted to not just tell readers about Conway’s thinking, she wanted to show the thought process itself. “Because my main source was Conway, I decided that to some extent it would be nice to attempt to capture the man in all his glory, rather than translate him — and in order to do that I had to give him some room to run free in his own words in the narrative with extended quotations, and then I had to be present myself as a sounding board, and sometimes as a foil.” As she tells us at Labyrinth, she gave Conway his own font, a sans serif typeface, to indicate when he has the floor.
I realize that, like Preston, Roberts has produced a work of “creative nonfiction” in order to capture the genius of Conway.
As the crowd breaks up at Labyrinth, I mention to Roberts the comparison to Preston and suggest that creative nonfiction might also be put to use by people considered to be entirely ordinary, but who might have a “hidden life within us which we may experience but cannot explain.”
Roberts, the history major, immediately has a thought. “Something like a Pepys Diary,” she says, referring to the English bureaucrat who kept a private diary from 1660 to 1669 that proved to be a window into that world when it was published 200 years later, “documenting the quotidian life.”
So who are the modern-day Samuel Pepys? I’m thinking. Give me another week.