Monday, July 20, 2015

Siobhan Roberts's "Genius At Play"

Siobhan Roberts is a Toronto journalist and author whose work focuses on mathematics and science. Her new book is Genius at Play, The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway (Bloomsbury, 2015). While writing the Conway biography, she was a Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, and a Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.

Her previous books are Wind Wizard: Alan G. Davenport and the Art of Wind Engineering (Princeton University Press, 2012), and King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, The Man Who Saved Geometry (Bloomsbury, 2006). King of Infinite Space won the Mathematical Association of America’s 2009 Euler Prize for expanding the public’s view of mathematics.

Roberts also wrote and produced a documentary film about Coxeter, The Man Who Saved Geometry, for TVOntario’s The View From Here (September 2009).

And she is the recipient of four National Magazine Awards in the science and technology longform features category (two Silver; two Honourable Mention).

Roberts applied the “Page 99 Test” to Genius at Play and reported the following:
As it happens, page 99 turns us to perhaps my favorite passage. We’ve just learned that “floccinaucinihilipilification” is perhaps Conway’s favorite word:
He reckons it’s longest word in the Oxford English Dictionary, and he recites nearly verbatim the OED’s definition: “the action or habit of estimating as worthless.” And his telling of its etymology checks out as well. It is a Latin-based word, invented circa 1730 at Eton as a schoolboy’s joke. Consulting a Latin textbook, the student found four ways of saying “don’t care” and stuck them together: flocci, a wisp of wool; nauci, a trifle; nihili, nothing or something valueless; pili, a bit or a whit, something small and insignificant.
The relevance is this: Whereas up until now along Conway’s timeline he’d been piddling his life away, playing games and doing, ostensibly, nothing, at this junction in the narrative Conway has triumphed with his annus mirabilis — in roughly one year, circa 1970, he invented the Game of Life, and discovered his Conway group, as well as his surreal numbers.

So, now, Conway could relax and continue on with his trifling nothings, all the stuff that he had formerly feared his fellow mathematicians might…

Conway had long maintained, publicly anyway, that all his noodling around, his compulsion for trivialities—memorizing stars, counting petals, playing backgammon—was worthless for all practical purposes. Regardless, he now could be the living, breathing embodiment of “Don’t Care!”
And as he himself recounted: “Before, everything I touched turned to nothing. Now I was Midas, and everything I touched turned to gold.”
Learn more about the book and author at Siobhan Roberts' website.

The Page 69 Test: King of Infinite Space.

The Page 99 Test: Wind Wizard.

Writers Read: Siobhan Roberts.

--Marshal Zeringue