Dramatis persona*

helenhead Helen Chick

I've always wanted a bumper sticker that said "I'm a female, LDS/Mormon, Scout leading, geocaching, piano-playing, bicycling, mathematics educator with a PhD in maths ... and I VOTE"!

I think this makes me a minority group of cardinality 1!

* Since there's only one of me and "personae" is plural (I think), I've gone with dramatis persona.
January 2023
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[I actually wrote this blog post in September, nearly six months after I first thought of writing it, but I’m placing it in the collection where I had intended it to be, in April, and writing it as if I had written it then … although I now know what the months after April look like.]

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a terrible thing that has upended lives and ended lives. We have been mostly stuck at home for about a month, since March, with the kids having school at home and me working from home, and we are just starting to have some easing of the “lock down”, so I anticipate being able to visit my parents again. Australia is, in general, doing better than a lot of other countries, but there are still outbreaks and deaths, although none of the harrowing scenes of inundated hospitals that we know have happened overseas.

The news has been full of the pandemic for weeks now, and, in amongst the bigger tragedy, were two poignant bits of news: the passing of Tim Brooke-Taylor and John Horton Conway. [In fact, I think it was only Tim Brooke-Taylor who made the news; I found out about John Horton Conway serendipitously because they died within a day of each other on the 12th and 11th of April respectively.] I had never met either of them, but they both have influenced my life.

Tim Brooke-Taylor was the poncy monarchist in the British BBC comedy series The Goodies which was broadcast repeatedly in the 1970s and 1980s. The humour here was to my generation what “The Goons” had been to Dad’s generation, however I missed out on a lot of the similar vintage “Monty Python” influences due to being just a smidge young/conservative for it. “The Goodies”—Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and Bill Oddie—played a significant role in my pre-teen and teenage humour development; they did some wonderful spoofs, satires, and absurdities, although we got the slightly expurgated versions as ABC television edited out some of the more risqué/ribald bits in order to show it during children’s viewing times. I can still quote bits of episodes and remember classic scenes, helped by the fact that I have a few of the episodes on DVD. My all-time favourite episode is “The Gunfight at the OK Tearooms”, but it doesn’t take much to prompt a quote from other episodes as well. One of the famous props from the series was the three-person bicycle; on hearing the news of Tim Brooke-Taylor’s death I sketched the following and posted it to Facebook (on April 13th).

To the general Australian public John Horton Conway is far more obscure than Tim Brooke-Taylor, but he has much greater fame amongst mathematicians. Conway is famous for inventing “The Game of Life” which is a cellular automata, in which cells in an array like the one below reproduce, survive or die depending on how many neighbours they have (see https://bitstorm.org/gameoflife/ to play around with some of the ideas; the ideas are very simple, but the effects are intriguing). He also was jointly responsible for the game of Sprouts (a join-the-dots pen-and-paper strategy game), and he came up with a new set of numbers known as “surreal numbers”, famous for the fact that a lot of the results about said surreal numbers were actually published unconventionally in a novel/play written by Donald Knuth. I can remember—as an honours student and as a PhD student in the 1980s and 1990s—lurking in the mathematics library (back in the day when there was a separate mathematics department at the uni, that had its very own departmental library) and reading about surreal numbers (I read the play, and tried to follow along with pen and paper) and trying to get my head around some of Conway’s other interesting mathematical ideas. While I didn’t really get to understand very much, it was a heady and intoxicating experience just to try, and the things felt mathematically exciting and called to me, even if I couldn’t always get there.

I didn’t know either of them, but they had an impact on me. Neither of them was young, but you can’t help feeling that COVID-19 is robbing us of so much.

Vale m’Lord Timbo, and JHConway.

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