John Conway: Mathematics is Fun

Source: The Sciences, 1994

Conway propped up the pillow behind his head and grinned. “I like showing off. When I make a new discovery, and I really like telling people about it. I guess I’m not so much a mathematician as a teacher. In America, kids aren’t supposed to like mathematics. It’s so sad.” Conway sat up suddenly. “Most people think that mathematics is cold. But it’s not at all! For me, the whole damn thing is sensual and exciting. I like what it looks like, and I get a hell of a lot more pleasure out of math than most people do out of art!” He relaxed slightly, and he lowered his voice. “I feel like an artist. I like beautiful things – they’re there already; man doesn’t have to create it. I don’t believe in God, but I believe that nature is unbelievably subtle and clever. In physics, for instance, the real answer to a problem is usually so subtle and surprising that it wasn’t even considered in the first place. That the speed of light is a constant – impossible! Nobody even thought about it. And quantum mechanics is even worse, but it’s so beautiful, and it works!” Conway grinned. “I really do enjoy the beauty of nature – and math is natural. Nobody could have invented the mathematical universe. It was there, waiting to be discovered, and it’s crazy, it’s bizarre. Math explains why the petals of the daffodil are arranged the way they are, and I think that I get more pleasure by looking at the daffodil than others do because I understand this. I guess I’m a Sybarite. I like beauty, and I like to eat and drink.”

Related Reading: AMS interview, May 2013

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