Conway Pere et Fils and Neil and Me

Neil recently came up with some puzzles (and art) for Gary Antonick’s Numberplay column in the New York Times. It was really cool and as part of it, Antonick includes a picture of Neil with one of his heroes, Stephen Wolfram, whose book The Art of Science, introduced Neil to cellular automata, the Game of Life, and the work of pioneers in the same like his mentor Bill Gosper.

Neil met another of his heroes, John Conway, at Gathering for Gardner 9, but until now I never published the picture of Neil with Conway and his son, because it doesn’t do them proper justice.

They’re all happy, but it doesn’t capture the boundless energy John Conway and his son Gareth, constantly exhibit. A picture I received of Neil talking to John Conway previously about the Century puzzle is more accurate, but less personal.If you have seen them in person, this picture looks like Conway and his son are almost in pain for having to hold still for the second it took my camera to click.

And, while it may seem curious, Neil related equally well to both Gareth, who was closer in age, and to John, who was older, but who’d written and produced much of what Neil was working with. Gareth likes to play Nintendo and has memorized the digits of Pi to a scary level; John likes to create impossible puzzles and program things that will blow people’s minds unto future generations. Neil relates to both of these things.

Personally, I don’t care about either of the things that make Gareth or John magnificent in the eyes of their peers; and I am in the mean between their years (give or take up to 10 years, depending on how much I’ve been working out and feel like lying). My first encounter with John Conway came when I stumbled upon him with one of his admirers and mentioned that my son was one of his fans; Conway snarled at me, much to my surprise, since to me he was much the same as any other author, like Clifford Pickover or Ivan Moscovich whose works Neil collected. But as it turned out, I spent an unexpected amount of time in the presence of John Conway. Neil wanted to absorb each and every short talk at G4G9 and hang with the celestial minds who’d come. I should be embarrassed to point out that flat Earth representations of a Rubik’s cube don’t capture my imagination, though certainly they capture Neil’s, so I often left the conference room to explore my own insipid fascinations rather than run the risk of embarrassing my son. These insipid fascinations are more in line with my liberal arts education, a fine line between foreign policy, current economics, and reality TV, that for the sake of brevity, I’ll call Survivor: Gulag North Korea.

So, since I was still Neil’s chaperone, I parked myself with a netbook just outside of the conference hall to look up the latest news of Survivor: Gulag North Korea. Within an hour, John and Gareth would appear–John to hold court with a revolving line of admirers (which would eventually include his biographer, Bill Gosper, Neil, and Neil’s peer math colleague, Julian):

Since I had parked myself on a couch first, John Conway couldn’t really ask me to skedaddle each day, not that I was spying on anything he had to say. And his son, who was entertaining himself behind me, took to heart his half-English heritage by occasionally making like Action Man, taking flight, and dramatically descending in close vicinity to this German-born spy listening in to his father’s scientific conferences. That was amusing, given that on my first visit to England ever, a 4-year old fully English boy had his own GI-Joe rip-off doll descend upon me with loud sound effects while I was trying to figure out their Chutes-and-Ladders rip-off in London’s children’s museum under heavy jetlag. I was horrified then, but the best English mathematicians like Conway and Wolfram have now civilized themselves to America, and their children are no match for their fully English wilding counterparts. I laughed at Gareth, who (at his father’s lead) finally had to resort to regular competition with me.

On the last day, as Neil was absorbing a talk on why 0.999999 is actually greater than 1, an admirer of John Conway had delivered something called chatter rings. Bill Gosper had warned me that John Conway is dangerous with anything manipulative, like a magician, and perhaps his stroke may have slowed him, but he was still no-one you’d ever want to have played poker with. In front of me, John explained to Gareth how the chatter rings worked, and after Gareth mastered them, directed his son to let me have a go.

I finally figured them out, and John mocked me in the way an English dude would, but more affably.

Well, given how much Neil admires John and Gareth, I am honored to have been mocked by Pere Conway. I have been spat on by Joey Ramone; and graciously thanked for my company by the president of the World Bank when I accidentally sat next to him and had no idea who he was. Having been mocked by John Conway was only the icing on the cake of a delightful life, and I warn people to watch out for his son.



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