The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 10, 2009

For Horton Was A Hoo

John Horton Conway, mathematician extraordinaire, is a man of so many parts that for all practical purposes he might as well be a god. Well, a demi-god, at least. Computer scientists adore him for the Game of Life; magicians revere him for his card tricks; gamesters love him for his wicked puzzles. His brain is a computer all in itself - he can tell you on which day any given date falls, and he can do so in less than a couple of seconds.

Women love him because he can rattle out the names of every visible star in the sky - and in alphabetical order, pointing at each star in question.

His finest achievement, however, has to do with his tongue. One in four people is able to roll their tongue to form a valley in the middle. So can John Horton Conway. One in 40 can form a clover, three valleys, with their tongue. So can John Horton Conway. One in 400 people can invert their tongues. And, indeed, John Horton Conway can twist his upside down. And one in 4000 can make their tongues go thick or thin. We do not hesitate to point out that John Horton Conway can do this as well.

He has only known one other person able to do all this - a woman he once met at a party. When he suggested that this meant that they were meant for each other, she shook her head and retreated fearfully.

He is fairly certain, though, that he has her beat at his last tongue trick. He can undulate his tongue in a continuous sine wave.

John Horton Conway is a much married man. With his first wife he had four kids. With his second, he had two. He has moved on to his third wife now, with whom he has one kid. He doesn't think he will ever have a fourth. It's not just that he is old. With his passion for patterns, he would need to have half a kid with her.

And that, we fear, is an achievement even beyond John Horton Conway.

[Check out Marcus du Sautoy's Finding Moonshine for these and other tales of great group theorists.]


km said...

These crazy Liverpudlians!

Fëanor said...

Indeed. There's no getting away from them Scousers.

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