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COVID-19 kills Princeton mathematician, ‘Game Of Life’ inventor John Horton Conway

John Conway

Renowned mathematician and Princeton University professor John Horton Conway died April 11 as a result of complications from the coronavirus. He was 82.

Conway, a familiar face in downtown Princeton who was a regular at Small World Coffee, made contributions to many areas of mathematics, including game theory, but was most well known for the invention of the cellular automaton called the Game of Life.

According to colleagues, Conway began to have a fever three days before he died at a hospital in New Brunswick on Saturday.

“I am sorry to confirm the passing of my colleague John Conway. An incomparable mathematician, a pleasant neighbor, and an excellent coffee acquaintance,” Princeton University Professor Sam Wang tweeted. “Part of coronavirus’s hard toll in New Jersey.”

The mathematics department at Princeton University confirmed the death in a brief note on the department’s website on Monday. A memorial service has not been planned yet because of COVID-19.

The Guardian once called Conway the world’s most charismatic mathematician. “John Horton Conway is a cross between Archimedes, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí. For many years, he worried that his obsession with playing silly games was ruining his career – until he realized that it could lead to extraordinary discoveries,” wrote journalist Siobhan Roberts in a 2015 profile.

Conway was born in Liverpool, England to Cyril Horton Conway and Agnes Boyce in 1937. He became interested in mathematics at an early age and knew when he was just 11 that he wanted to become a mathematician. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cambridge in 1959 and also earned his doctorate there in 1962.

For the first half of his career, he taught pure mathematics at Cambridge. He was then a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Illinois at Chicago before he came to Princeton University in 1986. At Princeton University, he was named the John von Neumann Chair of Mathematics. He became a professor emeritus at the university in 2013.

Conway won numerous awards, including the Brown Prize for Pure Mathematics in 1960, the Junior Berwick Prize of London Mathematical Society in 1971, the Polya Prize of London Mathematical Society in 1987, and the Frederic Esser Nemmers Prize in Mathematics in 1998. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1981 and received the Leroy P. Steele Prize for Mathematical Exposition from the American Mathematical Society in 2000.

“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),” reads the American Mathematical Society citation.


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