#b#Prologue#/b#

Were he not such an egomaniac, John Horton Conway, archly roguish with a gawky, geeky magnetism, might be writing this book himself. Eyes smiling, hands clasped proudly at his chest, he easily admits,

I do have a big ego!

As I often say, modesty is my only vice. If I weren’t so modest, I’d be perfect.*

Everyone who knows him knows it. Most everyone loves him nonetheless. Conway’s is a jocund and playful egomania, sweetened by self-deprecating charm. Based at Princeton University, though having made his name and found fame at Cambridge, he claims never to have worked a day in his life. He purports instead to have piddled away reams and reams of time playing games. Yet he is the John von Neumann Distinguished Professor in Applied and Computational Mathematics. He’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, a particularly august club, the oldest scientific society in the world — and Conway likes to mention that when he was elected in 1981, he signed the big book of fellows at the induction ceremony and was pleased to see on previous pages the names Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, and Bertrand Russell.

Not surprisingly then, considering the company he’s keeping, Conway is roundly praised as a genius. “The word ‘genius’ gets misused an awful lot,” says Stanford mathemagician Persi Diaconis. “John Conway is a genius. And the thing about John is he’ll think about anything. Most mathematicians are analysts or group theorists or number theorists or logicians. John has contributed to every single one of those areas, and yet doesn’t fit into any. He has a real sense of whimsy. You can’t put him in a mathematical box.” He factors large numbers in his head, he pulls pi out of a hat (reciting pi from memory to 1,111+ digits, that is), and he’s been known to carry on his person a few decks of cards, dice, ropes, pennies, coat hangers, sometimes a Slinky, maybe a miniature bicycle, all props he deploys to extend his winning imagination.

“He is among the most charismatic figures in mathematics,” says Baron Martin Rees of Ludlow, a former colleague of Conway’s at Cambridge and former president of the Royal Society. Biologists speak of a species as “charismatic” for its ability to draw attention to itself. There’s a “charismatic walrus” that whistles, growls, and roars on cue into a microphone. Conway looks the part of a walrus, scruffily hirsute, and he seems to take his cue from Lewis Carroll’s Walrus: “‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, ‘To talk of many things. . .’” Conway likes to talk, and talk and talk and talk. His voice is a rich, gravelly baritone, with a lingering Northern English lilt, that makes anything sound interesting, a voice you can listen to forever-almost. “He was by far the most charismatic lecturer in the faculty,” says another Cambridge colleague, Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer. “I’m not sure that I can describe how charisma happens. It just is or isn’t. And with most mathematicians it markedly isn’t.”

Still, for Conway, writing his autobiography would be unseemly. Partly because he’s an insecure egotist. He very much cares what other people think, and he worries that a self-portrait might come off as too egotistical. And partly because he’d have a hard time with “the fiction of humility that the conventional autobiographer must at every moment struggle to maintain,” as the occasional biographer Janet Malcolm describes the dilemma. So he’ll stick to doing what he does best. Gnawing on his left index finger with his chipped old British teeth, temporal veins bulging and brow pensively squinched beneath the day before yesterday’s hair, Conway unapologetically whiles away his hours tinkering and thinkering — which is to say he’s ruminating, or maybe he is doing some work, but he’ll insist he’s doing nothing, being lazy, playing games. Witnessing Conway’s gamesomeness over the years, James Propp, a professor of mathematics at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, observed:

“Conway is the rare sort of mathematician whose ability to connect his pet mathematical interests makes one wonder if he isn’t, at some level, shaping mathematical reality and not just exploring it. The example of this that I know best is a connection he discovered between sphere packing and games. These were two separate areas of study that Conway had arrived at by two different paths. So there’s no reason for them to be linked. But somehow, through the force of his personality, and the intensity of his passion, he bent the mathematical universe to his will.”

The hoity-toity Princeton bubble seems an incongruously grand home base for someone so gamesome. The campus buildings are Gothic and festooned with ivy. It’s a milieu where the well-groomed preppy aesthetic never seems passe. By contrast, Conway is rumpled, with an otherworldly mien, somewhere between The Hobbit’s Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf — a look that should earn him a spot in the online quiz featuring portraits of frumpy old men under the rubric “Prof or Hobo?” He wears faded and frayed chinos, stained with splotches that he camouflages by doodling spirals or crisscrosses over top with his pen. Above the waist he always wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a mathy message, such as:

are you crying?

there’s no crying!

THERE’S NO CRYING

IN MATH CLASS!

He long ago abandoned his office, which bears no nameplate, but there is a sign he found and repurposed, reading:

conway

$9.99

He was crowded out of these quarters by the wanton mess that accumulated into a full-fledged tip, with multicolored paper polyhedra hanging from the ceiling and gigantic spongy Escher puzzle pieces tiling the floor. His office no longer viable, Conway can usually be found in the mathematics department’s third-floor common room. The department is housed in the 15-story Fine Hall, the tallest tower in Princeton, with Sprint and AT&T cell towers on the rooftop. Inside, the professor-to-undergrad ratio is nearly 1:1. With a querying student often at his side, he settles either on a cluster of couches in the main room or, as today, just outside the fray in the hallway, burrowed into a window alcove — I came to think of it as the edifying alcove — furnished with 2 armchairs facing a blackboard. From there he borrows some Shakespeare and addresses a familiar visitor:

Welcome! It’s a poor place but mine own!

With clumsy gallantry he clears the spare chair of the day’s debris: the New York Times, devoured back-to-front with the morning’s bagel and coffee; his page-a-day Sudoku calendar; a landslide of loose paper on which he’s been running columns of numbers, playing a pointless game he invented about a month ago. Subprime Fibs, he calls it, and he has all the trial-and-error research right there in his filing cabinet, sediments of calculations filed beneath his armchair’s seat cushion.

Conway’s contributions to the mathematical canon include innumerable games. He is perhaps most famous for inventing the Game of Life in the late 1960s. The Scientific American columnist Martin Gardner called it “Conway’s most famous brainchild.” This is not Life the family board game, but Life the cellular automaton. It is played on a grid, like tic-tac-toe, where proliferating cells resemble skittering microorganisms viewed under a microscope. A cellular automaton is a little machine with groups of cells that evolve from iteration to iteration in discrete rather than continuous time-in seconds, say, each tick of the clock advances the next iteration, and then over time, behaving a bit like a transformer or a shape-shifter, the cells evolve into something, anything, everything else.

So the Game of Life is not a game proper. Conway calls it a “no-player never-ending” game. The recording artist and composer Brian Eno once recalled that seeing an electronic Game of Life exhibit on display at the Exploratorium in San Francisco gave him a “shock to the intuition.” “The whole system is so transparent,” he said, “that there should be no surprises at all, but in fact there are plenty: the complexity and ‘organicness’ of the evolution of the dot patterns completely beggars prediction.” And as suggested by the narrator in an episode of the television show Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design, “It’s possible to imagine that something like the Game of Life, with only a few basic laws, might produce highly complex features, perhaps even intelligence. It might take a grid with many billions of squares, but that’s not surprising. We have many hundreds of billions of cells in our brains.”

Life was among the first cellular automata and remains perhaps the best known. It was co-opted by Google for one of its Easter eggs: type in “Conway’s Game of Life” and alongside the search results appear ghostly light-blue cells that gradually overrun the page. Practically speaking, the game nudged the use of cellular automata and agent-based simulations in the complexity sciences, modeling the behavior of everything from ants to traffic to clouds to galaxies. Impractically speaking, it became a cult classic for those keen on no highfalutin application but wasting time. The spectacle of Life cells morphing on computer screens proved dangerously addictive for graduate students in math, physics, and computer science, as well as for many upstanding adults, especially those with jobs that provided access to idling mainframe computers. A U.S. military report estimated that the workplace hours lost while nerds clandestinely watched Life evolve on their computers cost millions. Or so one Life legend has it. Another purports that when Life went viral, 1/4 of all the world’s computers were playing.

Yet when Conway’s vanity strikes, as it often does, and he opens the index of a new mathematics book, casually checking for . . .

The sacred name of Conway!

. . . he gets peeved that more often than not his name is cited only in reference to the Game of Life. Aside from Life, his myriad contributions to the canon run broad and deep, though with such meandering interests he considers himself quite shallow. He has invented many an idiosyncratic algorithm — for counting stairs while you climb without actually counting, and another for how best to read through a stack of double-sided loose-leaf pages. Then there’s his first serious love, geometry, and by extension symmetry. From there his promiscuous curiosity has sent him roaming through group theory, knot theory, number theory, game theory, coding theory. He proved his chops when he discovered what’s sometimes called the Conway Constellation–3 among a family of sporadic groups in the ocean of mathematical symmetry. The biggest of his groups, called the Conway group, is based on the Leech lattice, representing a dense packing of spheres in 24-dimensional space where each sphere touches 196,560 other spheres. As Conway once explained to [Scientific American columnist] Martin Gardner,

There is a lot of room up there.

. . .

When I first proposed a biography to Conway, he nixed the idea out of hand:

Oh god. Never, NO!

I had just finished writing a book about the classical geometer H.S.M. (Donald) Coxeter. Since Coxeter was one of his heroes, I’d initially met Conway when I chased him down for an interview at a summer math camp, where he was getting into all sorts of trouble. Every summer he gives over what his colleagues might view as premium research time and spends a couple of weeks at camp with precocious young mathematicians. Witnessing him playing endless games with kids, it became abundantly clear that this was his natural milieu; there was no other way he’d rather spend his time. After our math camp meeting, and more Coxeter interviews, Conway ended up vetting the Coxeter manuscript, and along the way, being master of the digression, he managed to talk an awful lot about himself. He talked about crashing overnight at the Kremlin in ‘66, about attending the burial of Cromwell’s skull at Cambridge, about his 3 wives and all the other women, more than he can count (he tried once, during a bout of insomnia). He talked about his triple bypass, his attempted suicide, his ability to twist his tongue into a cloverleaf and 3 other shapes. He’s a talker, not a listener. While Coxeter epitomized the reticent and restrained Edwardian gentleman, Conway is the rare man inclined to forthright and global disclosure. However, he was chary, to use a word he likes, about being the subject of a biography. There were too many skeletons in the closet. His answer was NO.

A year or so later, in fall 2006, he suffered a stroke. This gave him a gimpy right side, but he walked out of the hospital with the help of a cane. And easily enough, while writing at the blackboard he cultivated his ambidexterity (not so surprising, considering his passion for symmetry). Though all in all he was feeling his mortality much more acutely. A year later again, I arrived in Princeton for a fellowship as a Director’s Visitor at the idyllic Institute for Advanced Study — where Einstein ultimately made his home, and where T.S. Eliot visited in 1948, walked the woods, and worked on his play The Cocktail Party. The Institute is a heady place, yet very social and, in its way, humble. One mathematician on faculty lives by his bumper sticker cautioning Don’t Believe Everything You Think. Once settled into my office and apartment, I called John to say hello.

Hey, listen! I’ve been thinking about that biography . . .

His ego had gotten the better of him. He’s changed his mind, at least provisionally.

. . .

Having asked for it, I could hardly decline the job of writing Conway’s biography. I roped him into a fact-finding mission to England; accompanied him to a workshop on the Monster group at Japan’s Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe; shadowed him in Atlanta at an invitation-only conference of mathematicians, magicians, and puzzlers honoring Martin Gardner; tagged along to more summer sessions of math camp where the bright school-age campers, as well as Conway, reveled in “Math Until We Die”; and I served as his travel agent and minder on a trip to Toronto for an appointment with the neuroscientist who studied Einstein’s and Coxeter’s brains and who is eager to study Conway’s, pre and postmortem.

Meanwhile, mingling with my betters at the Institute for Advanced Study — where the world’s best scholars delve deep into the past, the history of humanity, the evolution of the universe — I was ever answering the question of how one writes about a living subject. “If the biographer writes from personal knowledge, and makes haste to gratify the public curiosity, there is danger lest his interest, his fear, his gratitude, or his tenderness overpower his fidelity, and tempt him to conceal, if not to invent,” said Samuel Johnson (Conway keeps Boswell’s multivolume Life of Johnson on his bookshelf, alongside Johnson’s Lives of the Poets). I tried to heed the warning. Having Conway looking over my shoulder inevitably made his vital signs a liability, mostly for him. I realized this over lunch at the Institute with Heinrich von Staden, the resident authority on ancient science. He told me about the Greek and Roman tradition of vivisection, making public spectacle of strapping a live pig to a plank and cutting him open and observing the mechanics of his beating heart. A fitting metaphor, it seemed, for what this experience would become for Conway.

He tried to mitigate his own suffering with a few conditions: roughly, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” One wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, be so crass as to ask Conway too much about certain topics, although any information gleaned from other sources was, in theory, fair game. It had to be. Oral history was almost the only resource. Conway keeps no files, no archives, no diaries, no letters. He is impressively inept at the epistolary arts. His pigsties of offices always overflow with unopened mail, and he seldom reads any of his copious e-mail, either. There is a caricature of Conway — an iconic image among a certain crowd — that nicely captures the devilishness he gets away with (see illustration, this page).

Growing from his head is a topological entity called the “horned sphere.” Mathematicians call this form a “pathological example,” an entity with properties that are counterintuitive and ill behaved, much like Conway himself. He’s a romantic and a rabble-rouser, a utopian and anarchist, all rolled into one. For the most part with the biography he was cooperative, ingratiating, ever willing to talk-except when secondary sources produced an irresistibly salacious anecdote, or worse, telling discrepancies, puzzling difficulties in deciphering fact from fiction, true from false in the faulty towers of memory. At these moments of reckoning it was as if I’d disproved Conway’s greatest mathematical masterpiece, debunked the surreal numbers as merely real. He’d shoot me his death stare and say,

Oh, hell. You’re not going to put that in the book. Are you?!?

#b#Chapter Two:Dazzling New World#/b#

. . .

A bout his childhood Conway has select memories, most about the war. Conway remembers his father serving as an air raid warden, and the makeshift telephone system he constructed linking the bomb shelters in their neighborhood, as well as the play version he made for the kids. He remembers his dad carrying him out to their shelter and looking up into the night sky and seeing an entrancing spectacle of spinning lights and balloons, barrage balloons set out by RAF Balloon Command to deter dive bombers. He remembers his mum waking him up on December 26, 1941, leaning over the bed and saying, “You are 4 today, John Conway.” He remembers being evacuated alone to Bangor, Wales. These memories, and a few others, I heard numerous times. I hoped that his sister Joan might be able to retrieve different details, being 10 years her brother’s senior. When I called her back, she picked up after a few rings, the television blaring in the background. She started at the very beginning. “He was born on December 26, Boxing Day, in 1937. Well, you probably already have that information,” she says, “but it spoiled our Christmas dinner.” During our first interview she told me stories for the better part of an hour. During the second, I looked at the telephone’s time display: 88 minutes and counting. Talking and talking and talking apparently ran in the family.

In June 1927, their dad, Cyril, 24, married their mum, Agnes, 22, in what Conway suspects was a shotgun wedding. They lived in central Liverpool in a small row of houses just off Penny Lane-as in the Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” a song that the Journal of Mundane Behavior describes as “a portrait of a village virtually teeming with Nowhere Men.” Cyril, who smoked like a furnace, was one of those nowhere men, often out of work, picking up odd jobs here and there. He’d left school at 14 to go to work when his father died at 56, leaving his mother a widow with 9 children: 3 sets of twins and 3 singles. He managed to make a decent living playing cards; possessing a photographic memory, he was hired by less talented players who fronted him money, absorbed any losses, and took a sizable cut of his winnings. Not having attended college, he became a lifelong autodidact. He loved science and visited professors at Liverpool University to banter about the latest discoveries. He was also a reader, consuming encyclopedias and encyclopedic works such as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as well as a variety of dictionaries. His son, too, became a dictionary reader and logophile at an early age, and he tucked into Decline and Fall and was pleasantly surprised by its allusions to sex (all the virgins and concubines, anyway). Conway’s mum, who’d worked since age 11, was another great reader. Her tastes ran toward Dickens, and her household was of the Dickensian genre, jolly and convivial despite challenging economic circumstances. Baby Joan, born in 1928, slept in a chest of drawers. By the time the second baby, Sylvia, arrived in 1932, Cyril had a steady job at the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, working as a technician in the chemistry lab, setting up experiments for students, among them George Harrison and Paul McCartney. At school Mr. Conway was known to be quiet, imperturbable, a background presence, except during the Institute’s open house nights, when he always performed a popular spectacle. He’d casually dip his cigarette into a flute of liquid oxygen, lean into the flame of a Bunsen burner for a light, and then with deadpan delivery and perfect timing bring the fag to his mouth with a foot-long flame jetting out. Mr. Conway was a showman. Again, like father, like son.

The family moved into a larger house in a Liverpool suburb in time for John’s arrival. Weighing in at 14 pounds 12 ounces, he was not a twin but essentially 2-in-1, with brains to match. Agnes liked to brag about finding her son at the age of 4 sitting on the living room floor and reciting the powers of 2 — as Conway himself notes, that’s an impressive feat if he got up to 1,024 (210) but not so much if he reached only 16. Joan takes credit for teaching him to count. He loved to count.

And he belligerently and persistently demanded of his sister:

What’s more? What’s the more?! When does it end?

I mentioned this prophetic tale to Conway. Scowling, he offered some advice:

Don’t trust a word Joan says. She always exaggerates! The entire family knows it.

Not long after these discussions, Conway and his sister and I stood before their family home in Liverpool, at 8 Fairfield Close, a cul-de-sac, on an overcast September afternoon. By trundling Conway across the Atlantic, I hoped to excavate some more reliable memories . . .

Our tour of times past also included Conway’s old high school, the Holt High School for Boys, and a classmate, Peter Evennett, joined us for the visit. A retired professor of zoology at the University of Leeds, Evennett is also the honorary archivist of the Royal Microscopical Society, and he turned out to be a decent de facto archivist of Conway’s adolescence. As soon as they set eyes on each other, Evennett started in with rapid-fire trivia from bygone days, putting Conway on the defensive:

I can’t remember anything!!

Evennett remembered John as the school’s star mathematician. “You came to school one day with a thing made out of split cane, stuck together with Chatterton’s Compound, which is something your father doubtless had at home, black sticky stuff, and you told me it was a 3-dimensional representation of a 4-dimensional cube. Do you remember that?”

No. But it sounds likely.

Conway had not learned about 4-dimensional cubes in math class. The math teacher, Mr. Malone, lent him his copy of Mathematical Recreations and Essays, the classic by W. W. Rouse Ball, and updated by Donald Coxeter, who added a full chapter on polyhedra. Conway also got his hands on Coxeter’s Regular Polytopes, polytopes being multisided geometric figures in any dimension. In 0 dimensions there is 1 polytope, the dot, a solitary point. In 1 dimension there is only the line segment. In 2 dimensions there are an infinite number of regular polygons, and as Coxeter summarized, “Everyone is acquainted with some of the regular polygons: the equilateral triangle which Euclid constructs in his first proposition, the square which confronts us all over the civilized world, the pentagon which can be obtained by making a simple knot in a strip of paper and pressing it carefully flat, the hexagon of the snowflake, and so on.” In 3 dimensions there are precisely 5 regular polyhedra, the Platonic solids, admired for their symmetry, particularly by Conway. And here again, Conway insists one can’t do better than to consult Coxeter. “The early history of these polyhedra is lost in the shadows of antiquity. To ask who first constructed them is almost as futile as to ask who first used fire.”

. . .

In 1955, during Conway’s second-to-last year of high school, ordinary or not-so-ordinary life included the film Blackboard Jungle, featuring the hit single “Rock Around the Clock”; the FDA’s approval of the Salk polio vaccine; Churchill’s resignation; the signing of the Warsaw Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance; the beginning of the Vietnam War; and the launch of the Space Race, with both the United States and Russia building ballistic missiles. In April 1955, an article by Conway appeared in the Holt School Magazine, titled “n-Dimensional Regular Polytopes,” illustrated with original Conway diagrams but, in his view, containing no original Conway thought; he was channeling Coxeter.

By the next year, according to the magazine’s March 1956 issue, Conway was secretary of the Science Society. He reported on his own opening of the society’s term with a lecture on calendars and their history: “Conway gave the day’s date in most of the chronological systems in use at present, and in many ancient ones . . .” And later in the term he gave a lecture on “Unusual Atmospheric Phenomena.” There were no reports of his displaying any interest in the chess or badminton clubs, nor the debating, literary, film, philatelic or aeronautical societies. There was no mention of him on the athletics pages. Conway has never gone in for sports.

That’s true, yes. I believe in exercise: it exists. Do you know that saying from Jerome K. Jerome? He wrote Three Men in a Boat and Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. He said: “I love work. I can sit and watch it for hours.”

#b#About the author:#/b# A reader of Siobhan Roberts’ biography of Princeton mathematician John Conway might assume that Roberts is as much a mathematician as she is a writer. In fact, Roberts has no formal training in mathematics, but she does come from a long line of book lovers (her mother was an editor and her father an English teacher). She recalls a formative experience with geometry in grade six. “It didn’t make me either phobic or a precocious devotee. I was fond of my geometry kit (boys especially liked the compass because it could be contorted to look like a gun) and as a result I did well in math class that year. Well enough that I skipped grade seven math and went on to take all the math and science courses I could in high school.

At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Class of 1994, “I flipped the arts-or-sciences coin and enrolled for a seemingly obsolete BA in history. I gave mathematics nary another thought, until I came across the man who saved geometry, one Donald Coxeter.”

Roberts began her career at the National Post newspaper in Canada, and then became a freelancer, winning four National Magazine Awards as a science writer. Her first book, The King Of Infinite Space, was a biography of Coxeter (1907-2003), the acclaimed University of Toronto mathematician. In 2012 the Princeton University Press published her Wind Wizard, the story of Alan Davenport (1932-2009), considered the father of modern wind engineering.

As she explained to Gary Antonick of the New York Times, she had to adjust her approach in writing the Conway biography.

“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 — I’m an introvert! The reporter is always there implicitly in any piece, but an overt presence is not usually my style. 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. And he made himself available pretty much ad infinitum — he was extremely generous with his time. I talked to him again and again and again on any number of subjects. 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.

“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, of sorts, and sometimes as a foil. In addition to being a world-class mathematician — an amalgam of Archimedes, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali all rolled into one — in addition to all that, he is a fabulous storyteller and teacher.

“The other factor I had to consider was that Conway truly needs his audience — so again, I needed to be present to serve as the audience proxy. He is at his best when performing, grandstanding, explaining to anyone who will listen, and he can go high or low, as necessary.

“Although in one limited sense, when Conway is thinking things through for himself, Conway needs his “deaf ear,” as he once described it to [Scientific American columnist] Martin Gardner. And as Martin recounted to me, ‘That meant that I had to listen to what he was saying, but I didn’t need to understand it.’

“That was my strategy, initially. I listened and didn’t worry about understanding. Then, eventually, I had to interrupt Conway and ask questions, because I did need to understand, to some extent, at least the gist of things (as did Martin; he wrote Conway long letters with lists of questions, leaving space for Conway to answer and mail back). And here my experience was quite similar to what [Stanford mathematician] Persi Diaconis told me. He tells an almost identical story of listening to Conway, having been instructed to lend him an ‘unhearing ear.’ But in Diaconis’s telling, as he was listening he started to understand, so he interjected and asked a question. And Conway answered: ‘No, no, no, no! Don’t interrupt!’

“Luckily, my natural modus operandi as a journalist is to listen — I’m not a talker, I’m a listener. And perhaps because I don’t readily jump in with the talking, that forces others to talk. Conway is a talker — he talks and talks and talks. So that worked out well. And of course he was also receptive to questions, when I was persistent.

“There were a few writers who inspired me in taking this approach, perhaps the foremost being Geoff Dyer, author of a biography (of sorts) of D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, among several genre-bending books. At the moment I’m reading Atul Gawande’s lovely book, Being Mortal, and he says something on that subject which I think applies more broadly: ‘I have found it unclear what the answers should be, or even whether any adequate ones are possible. I have the writer’s and scientist’s faith, however, that by pulling back the veil and peering in close, a person can make sense of what is most confusing or strange or disturbing.’

“Math is all that for most people, perhaps, but Conway has a brilliant way of making it understandable and intriguing, familiar and delightful, and fun.”

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