Thursday, July 23, 2015

Did you think mathematicians were boring?

Cassels asked him, “What have you done about a job?”

“Er, nothing,” replied Conway.

“There’s a position opening here, why don’t you apply?”

“How do I go about it?”

“You write me a letter.”

“What should I say?”

Cassels took pity. He offered to write the letter for Conway. He sat down at the side of the road on a stone wall in front of King’s College, rummaged through his briefcase, found a pen, pulled out a piece of paper, and began, “Dear Professor Cassels, I wish to apply for …”

and later

For one student, Edward Welbourne, now a software engineer in Oslo, the most memorable was Conway’s linear algebra course – specifically, a session wherein Conway proved that for two symmetric quadratic forms, both can be simultaneously diagonalised (no small feat). “Doing each takes a moderately tricky piece of computation,” said Welbourne. “To do two at the same time is thus doubly tricky, like balancing a broom by its handle on one’s chin while juggling.” This is exactly what Conway did, while concluding the proof.

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