Genius player

On Wednesday, Graham realised a long-held ambition to meet John Conway, one of the most innovative mathematicians of the past few decades.

John Conway drawn by Simon J. Fraser
John Conway – drawn by Simon J. Fraser (1973)


Inventor of ‘The Game of Life’, surreal numbers and ideas that have found applications in theoretical physics, Conway is a unique figure. Now emeritus professor at Princeton University, he is currently visiting the UK, and has given a special lecture at Cambridge. Graham arranged for him to give an interview in London with The Guardian’s Ian Sample, available as a podcast.

Conway is the subject of a meta-biography Genius at Play, recently published by the Canadian writer Siobhan Roberts. This is one of Graham’s favourite books of the year: ‘This is a truly original piece of mathematics writing. Roberts brings out her subject’s originality as well as his extraordinary personality. According to folklore, biographers should keep their distance from their subjects, but Roberts did not do this – she spent years getting to know Conway well, even travelling with him. Yet she brilliantly manages to keep her distance and maintain a cool, fair and perspective on him. The book is a triumph.’

Siobhan Roberts
Siobhan Roberts, author of ‘Genius at Play’, credit Christopher Wahl


During an informal interview with Conway in the Guardian’s plush head office, he talked about several of his contributions to mathematics, including ‘the free will theorem’, and he reminisced about this time in Caltech in the early 1970s, when he met the theoreticians Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann. Graham was seeking to understand Conway’s views on the relationship between pure mathematics and theoretical physics, the theme of the book Graham is currently writing. As many string theorists have pointed out, Conway was one of the mathematics who were unknowingly making contributions to mathematics that proved seminal in the embryonic theory of fundamental interactions.

After the recording of the podcast interview with Conway, The Guardian’s Ian Sample Tweeted: ‘Well that was like herding one very adorable multidimensional cat’ –a brilliant description of meeting Conway, and, Graham suspects, of writing his meta-biography.