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Professor John Conway (1937-2020)

  • 16 April 2020

The College is deeply saddened to hear of the death of Honorary Fellow and world-renowned mathematician Professor John Conway on 11 April 2020, aged 82. John first joined Caius as an undergraduate in 1956, travelling from Liverpool to study mathematics at Cambridge. For three decades, including a PhD at Caius, he studied numerous different parts of mathematics, including group theory, topology, combinatorial geometry and number theory. He lectured in pure mathematics at the University, and in 1981 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). His nomination described him as follows:

Professor John Conway in front of a chalk board“A versatile mathematician who combines a deep combinatorial insight with algebraic virtuosity, particularly in the construction and manipulation of “off-beat” algebraic structures which illuminate a wide variety of problems in completely unexpected ways. He has made distinguished contributions to the theory of finite groups, to the theory of knots, to mathematical logic (both set theory and automata theory) and to the theory of games (as also to its practice).”

His most notable work includes his work on the atlas of finite simple groups, monstrous moonshine, his work in knot theory, and his invention of `surreal numbers’, though he perhaps gained most renown for inventing the Game of Life, which gave rise to the field of cellular automata. Caius mathematicians Jonathan Evans and Ivan Smith write:

"Conway's work combined remarkable playfulness with extremely deep insight. He had a profound impact on finite group theory at a critical stage in the evolution of the subject, contributing to our understanding of the sporadic simple groups; he invented a new notation for knots and introduced the now-renowned class of rational tangles; he invented surreal numbers whilst thinking about the game of Go; he wrote one of the definitive texts on sphere packings (the way you most efficiently fill space by packing balls; in high dimensions the answers are intricately linked with remarkably symmetric objects called lattices); and his impact on computer science, coding, and game theory went far beyond the Game of Life. His work, like his curiosity, affected all fields of mathematics, and a huge number of mathematicians.”

John was an unmistakable presence in Cambridge and was a Fellow at Caius between 1962-4 and 1970-87. He became an Honorary Fellow in 1998.