Brief book review: Genius at play (Roberts)


Roberts has produced a compelling sketch of Conway both as a highly creative mathematician and as an individual, and somehow also managed to make the fascination of (more or less pure!) mathematics palpable for the layperson. Through their (Roberts and Conway’s) often humorous interactions, we gain a small window into Conway’s background, work ethic, habits, mindset, and struggles (alongside refreshing hints of how at least some of his image was consciously constructed), all of which the academic in me would love to draw some lessons from.

Bonus neuroscience content: Towards the end of the book, they pay a visit to Sandra Witelson, the neuroscientist who has made it her mission to study the brains of individuals thought to have remarkable minds. I am only very loosely acquainted with her work, so I may just be missing the complete picture, but I found myself nodding along to the more skeptical stance of neuroscience-layman Conway in response to some of her thoughts and methods, such as when she said, “I have people asking me whether Einstein’s brain got to be the way it is because he did so much physics. And of course I think it is the other way around. I think he did so much physics because his brain had a certain anatomy.”
I doubt her narrative, but that is far from the point of the book, so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say that I don’t think that her fMRI studies of Conway will produce any meaningful insights into his creative ingenuity.

I took a lot of additional pleasure in the vivid scenes of his life in Cambridge (between the 50s and the 80s), both in the sense of its historical insights, as well as that reminiscent delight of tracing a historical narrative in a physical place that one is (at least slightly) familiar with.

I really enjoyed this trip, and look forward to further encounters with mathematical ideas and concepts (and personalities). (Interestingly, the “beauty and truth” of mathematics, as propagated here, conveniently show the seduction with which certain pockets of theoretical physics may have gotten lost in math.)

Genuis at play: The curious mind of John Horton Conway (Siobhan Roberts)

Further reviews/ratings on Goodreads

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