The World’s Most Charismatic Mathematician

Siobhan Roberts, profiling John Conway for The Guardian in 2015:

This lust for the seemingly trivial has consumed a remarkable amount of Conway’s time and energy. In addition to all the gaming, he’s also been infatuated with factoring large numbers in his head; with reciting pi from memory to 1,111+ digits; with calculating, nearly instantaneously, the day of the week for any given date using what he calls his “Doomsday” algorithm. He’s invented many peculiar algorithms — for counting stairs while you climb without actually counting, and for how best to read through a stack of double-sided loose-leaf pages. And he’s been known to carry on his person decks of cards, dice, ropes, pennies, coat hangers, sometimes a Slinky, maybe a miniature toy bicycle, all props he deploys both for explaining ideas and for his own amusement.

While there may seem little method to this madness, curiosity-driven research is attracting renewed attention and support as a strategy for success in the sciences, both pure and applied, and economically for society as a whole. At the first National Mathematics Festival in Washington in April, the Italian economist Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank and one of the keynote speakers, noted that to believe and invest in fundamental research is to believe and invest in the future — that with increasing constraints on demographic and natural resources, and the impending “secular stagnation” as some call it, the countries that make fundamental research in maths and science a high priority will be the countries that prosper economically. Although Conway himself regards money with an indifference verging on contempt, he is a crusading ambassador for simple curiosity, which he considers the universal force driving discovery.

Monday, 13 April 2020