Let’s Remember: John Conway, 1937-2020

John Conway FRS mathematician, computer scientist and author has died from COVID-19, age 82 at his home in New Jersey (December 26, 1937 to April 11, 2020).

Conway’s most famous work was the Game of Life in 1970 (see the GIF below) which has been a mathematical recreation for decades. Its rules are simple but can produce levels of complexity that require massive computing power, but simple enough for beginning computer programmers using BASIC (e.g. me) to understand and create their own versions.  Life was proven to be Turing Complete, meaning a computer could be built within the game (thus preceding Minecraft’s computer-in-a-game by decades).  Conway despised his own creation for a long period until it found usefulness in studying cellular authomata.  Conway would likely prefer to be remembered for his dozen books as well as his work in number theory, game theory, geometry, algebra, theoretical physics and many other branches of mathematics and science.

The Guardian, 2015: John Horton Conway: the world’s most charismatic mathematician

Quanta Magazine, 2015: A Life in Games

Cornell (arXiv.org): An Introduction to Conway’s Games and Numbers

Conway was also a longtime collaborator of Martin Gardner.

Numberphile has numerous videos featuring John Conway, all worth watching.  In this video, from 2014, he reflects on his life and career.


  1. says

    It’s not a good way to die; I’m sorry to hear about it.

    The Game of Life was probably named too well, and there has been way too much ink spilled over it. Finite state machines are cool but they’re not that cool; it’s a basic programmer’s trick. On the other hand, I was pretty fascinated the first time I saw it, on a screensaver on a Sun 3/60 back in the early 80s.

    • says

      Life, along with things like bubble sort and magic squares, are the sorts of things that attracted many kids to computer programming and mathematics. Creating games alone wasn’t enough, nor was problem solving. But combine the two, and you have somthing that creates an “itch”, a need to find solutions.

      How many young minds were turned onto mathematics by Conway, Gardner and many others? Who could count, but we’re likely better off for it, and I’m grateful to him.

  2. blf says

    How many young minds were turned onto mathematics by Conway, Gardner and many others?

    I was always into Mathematics (that’s what one of my degrees is in), so cannot say I was “turned onto mathematics” by them, but they very probably did reinforce my interest and enjoyment. I certainly devoured Scientific American’s Mathematical Games, especially during the Gardner era.