Monday, August 17, 2015

John Conway's Life

There is a new book out about a mathematician, and as usual he is portrayed as a mentally ill misfit. Here is the WSJ review:
Even Mr. Conway’s darkest points somehow take a sharp veer into whimsy. In 1993, suffering from heart disease and somehow flat broke on a Princeton salary, he attempted suicide by pills. Upon recovering, he wore a T-shirt around campus that read “SUICIDE” in large block letters, apparently with the intent of diffusing rather than generating awkwardness. (“I wore it for 2 or 3 days until it got too sweaty,” he recalls.) ...

Mr. Conway typifies a popular stereotype of the mathematician: prone to wild enthusiasms, sweaty and wild-bearded, inattentive to the mundanities. Ms. Roberts, to her credit, reminds us that he is as much a social outlier among his colleagues as he would be in the general public; that when he forgets to show up to deliver a lecture, it’s annoying, not charming; that the sincere and profound admiration Mr. Conway enjoys is often tinted with exasperation. This is most notable in the only slightly touched-on subject of his romantic life. “I think John is the most selfish, childlike person I have ever met,” one of his three ex-wives tells Ms. Roberts. “One of the reasons I find that so intolerable is that I know damn well he can be human if he cares enough to bother.”
Hollywood usually treats mathematicians as mentally ill also.

A new physics biographical essay writes:
In the early 1970s, Yuri Golfand was among the discoverers of theoretical supersymmetry, a concept which completely changed mathematical physics in the 21st century. After his discovery, his research institution in Moscow fired him. He knew the humiliations of the Brezhnev regime firsthand, blacklisted and unemployed for the rest of the decade due to his desire to emigrate to Israel.
It calls supersymmetry a "revolutionary concept in theoretical physics". Supersymmetry certainly caused a lot of excitement, but it has been a gigantic dead end. Nothing has come out of that work that has any bearing on the real world. No Nobel Prizes have been given for any work related to supersymmetry. The world is not supersymmetric.

I don't want to minimize his hardships under Communism, but no one else got exit visas either.

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