John Conway, the Presenter

(I wrote this piece for La Recherche. It was translated into French by Philippe PAJOT. You can find this piece and pieces by others at John Horton Conway: a magician of maths disappears.)

Unlike many other mathematicians I know, John Conway cared a lot about the way he presented things. For example, in the puzzle he invented—known as Conway’s Wizards—the wizards had to be riding on a bus. Why was the bus so important? You see, the numbers in the puzzle were related to the age of one of the wizards, the number of the bus, and the number of the wizard’s children. It was important to John that the readers be able to use a convenient notation a, b and c for these numbers and remember which number is which.

When I give my lecture on integers and sequences, I show my students a list of different famous sequences. The first question from the audience is almost always: “What are the Evil Numbers?” As you can guess the name for this sequence was invented by John Conway. This name was invented together with the name of another sequence which is called Odious Numbers. These two sequences are complementary in the same sense as even and odd numbers are complementary: every natural number is either evil or odious. The names are good, not only because they attract, but also because they help remember what the sequences are. Evil numbers are numbers with an even number of ones in their binary representation. I assume that you can interpolate what the odious numbers are.

When he was lecturing, John used all sorts of tricks to emphasize important points: From time to time I saw him shouting or throwing his shoes. Once I remember him staring at his statement written on the blackboard for a really long time. My neighbor in the lecture hall got uncomfortable. He assumed that John, who was at that time way over 70, was blanking out and had forgotten what he wanted to say. I calmed my neighbor down. It was my fourth time listening to the same lecture, including the same pause. John Conway didn’t forget.

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