Martin Gardner, 1914-2010

I was saddened to learn today that the great Martin Gardner had died on Saturday at a rest home in Norman, Oklahoma. He was 95.

For those of you who didn’t know him, Martin Gardner was universally regarded by those who did as one of the brightest lamps of the 20th century. He was best known as a “recreational mathematician”, but he was also a philosopher, novelist, literary critic, and prominent skeptic. He wrote over 70 books.

I’ve been a fan of Gardner’s for as long as I can remember. When I was a young boy my father, a scientist, had a subscription to Scientific American (that was back when it was a serious publication), and knowing that I loved puzzles, he suggested that I might enjoy Mr. Gardner’s Mathematical Games column. (It ran from 1956 to 1981, when it was replaced by Douglas Hofstadter’s column Metamagical Themas.) I was immediately drawn in by Mr. Gardner’s infectious enthusiasm and explanatory clarity, and thanks to him I developed a lifelong fascination with logic and math. His column was where I first learned about tilings, ternary numbers, integer spirals, bouncing-ball problems, parity checks, hexaflexagons, cellular automata, cycloids, Klein bottles, graph theory, the logic puzzles of Lewis Carroll, the multifarious brain-twisters of Sam Loyd, and whatever else had occupied his playful and infinitely capacious mind in the preceding weeks.

I have several of his books on my shelves. The collections of mathematical diversions are an enduring pleasure, but three others that stand out in particular are his 1957 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, which was the beginning of his career as a skeptical debunker of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo; The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, from 1983, in which the 69-year-old Gardner explained, as he put it, “what I believe and why”; and a wonderful book on the fascinating subject of symmetry and chirality, called The Ambidextrous Universe.

Though he was never trained as a mathematician — his degree from the University of Chicago was in philosophy — his long years as the world’s greatest amateur, and his restless curiosity about anything and everything mathematical gave him a matchless overview, and he was sought out by professionals the world over as a kind of one-man clearing-house of mathematica new and old. As a generalist he was probably without peer.

I knew he was in his nineties, and had just thought about him no more than a few weeks ago with the realization that he would soon be gone. But it is still sad to know that this mischievous, endearing, and coruscatingly brilliant intellect is with us no more.

You can read his obituary here. And while you’re at it, just go online and Google his name: like the man himself, it will take you all sorts of interesting places.

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One Comment

  1. I recall a column that he wrote parodying the certainties of economists by inventing a concept that he called “technosnarl.” He graphed a snarly line that doubled back upon itself multiple times until it resembled something gone haywire, to illustrate the way in which technological innovation affected economic developments, rendering predictions impossible.

    Jeffery Hodges

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    Posted May 25, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

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