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«Contents Ü Foreword Elwyn Berlekamp and Tom Rodgers ½ I Personal Magic ¿ Martin Gardner: A “Documentary” Dana Richards ½¿ Ambrose, Gardner, ...»

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MARTIN GARDNER: A “DOCUMENTARY” 7 “The only coat I had,” Gardner recalls, “was an old Navy pea jacket that smelled of diesel oil. I remember the hatcheck girl looking askance when I handed her the filthy rag.” [15] About 1947, he moved to New York where he soon became friends with such well-known magic devotees as the late Bruce Elliot, Clayton Rawson, Paul Curry, Dai Vernon, Persi Diaconis, and Bill Simon. It was Simon who introduced Martin and Charlotte (Mrs. Gardner) and served as best man at their wedding. Judge George Starke, another magic friend, performed the ceremony. [12] *** “Ever since I was a boy, I’ve been fascinated by crazy science and such things as perpetual motion machines and logical paradoxes. I’ve always enjoyed keeping up with those ideas. I suppose I really didn’t get into it seriously until I wrote my first book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. I was influenced by the Dianetics movement, now called Scientology, which was then promoted by John Campbell in Astounding Science Fiction. I was astonished at how rapidly the thing had become a cult. I had friends who were sitting in Wilhelm Reich’s orgone energy accumulators.And the Immanuel Velikovsky business had just started, too. I wrote about those three things in an article for the Antioch Review, then expanded that article into a book by adding chapters on dowsing, flying saucers, the hollow-earth theories, pyramidology, Atlantis, early ESP research, and so on. It took a long time for the book to start selling, but it really took off when they started attacking it on the Long John Nebel Show.... For about a year, almost every night, the book would be mentioned on the show by some guest who was attacking it.” [20] *** Their first son was born in 1955 and their second three years later. Gardner needed a regular income in those years and with his usual serendipity found a job that was just right for him: contributing editor for Humpty Dumpty’s Magazine. He designed features and wrote stories for Humpty, Children’s Digest, Piggity’s, and Polly Pigtails.“Those were good years at Humpty.” [15] *** Although Gardner is a brand-new children’s writer, he has a good background for the task. He says that he is a great admirer of the L. Frank Baum “Oz” books, having read all of them as a child, and regards Baum as “the greatest writer of children’s fiction yet to be produced by America, and one of the greatest writers of children’s fantasy in the history of world literature.” He adds, “I was brought up on John Martin’s magazine, the 8 D. RICHARDS influence of which can be seen in some of the activity pages which I am contributing to Humpty Dumpty.” [6] *** Every Saturday a group of conjureres would gather in a restaurant in lower Manhattan.“There would be 50 magicians or so, all doing magic tricks,” Gardner reminisces. One of them intrigued him with a so-called hexaexagon — a strip of paper folded into a hexagon, which turns inside out when two sides are pinched.Fascinated, Gardner drove to Princeton, where graduate students had invented it. [23] *** He got into mathematics by way of paper folding, which was a big part of the puzzle page at Humpty. A friend showed him a novel way to fold a strip of paper into a series of hexagons, which led to an article on combinatorial geometry in Scientific American in December 1956. James R. Newman’s The World of Mathematics had just been published, demonstrating the appeal of math for the masses, and Gardner was asked to do a monthly column. “At the time, I didn’t own a single math book,” he recalls. “But I knew of some famous math books, and I jumped at the chance.”His first columns were simple. Through the years they have grown far more sophisticated in logic, but the mathematics in them has never gone much beyond second-year college level, because that’s all the mathematics Gardner knows. [16] *** “The Annotated Alice, of course, does tie in with math, because Lewis Carroll was, as you know, a professional mathematician. So it wasn’t really too far afield from recreational math, because the two books are filled with all kinds of mathematical jokes. I was lucky there in that I really didn’t have anything new to say in The Annotated Alice because I just looked over the literature and pulled together everything in the form of footnotes. But it was a lucky idea because that’s been the best seller of all my books.” [14] *** At first, Gardner says, the column was read mostly by high school students (he could tell by the mail), but, gradually, as he studied the enormous literature on recreational math and learned more about it, he watched his readers become more sophisticated. “This kind of just happened,” he explains with a shrug and a gesture toward the long rows of bookshelves, crammed with math journals in every language, that line one alcove in his study. “I’m really a journalist.” Gardner says he never does any original work, he simply popularizes the work of others.“I’ve never made a discovery myself, unless by accident. If you write glibly, you fool people. When I first met Asimov, I asked him if he was a professor at Boston University.He said no and.... asked me MARTIN GARDNER: A “DOCUMENTARY” 9 where I got my Ph.D. I said I didn’t have one and he looked startled. ‘You mean you’re in the same racket I am,’ he said, ‘you just read books by the professors and rewrite them?’ That’s really what I do.” [11] *** “I can’t think of any definition of ‘mathematician’ or ‘scientist’ that would apply to me. I think of myself as a journalist who knows just enough about mathematics to be able to take low-level math and make it clear and interesting to nonmathematicians.Let me say that I think not knowing too much about a subject is an asset for a journalist, not a liability. The great secret of my column is that I know so little about mathematics that I have to work hard to understand the subject myself. Maybe I can explain things more clearly than a professional mathematician can.” [20] *** His “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American is one of the few bridges over C. P. Snow’s famous “gulf of mutual incomprehesion” that lies between the technical and literary cultures. The late Jacob Bronowski was a devotee; poet W. H. Auden constantly quoted from Gardner. In his novel Ada, Vladimir Nabokov pays a twinkling tribute by introducing one Martin Gardiner, whom he calls “an invented philospher.” Nevertheless, as the mathemagician admits, “not all my readers are fans.

I have also managed to provoke some outspoken enemies.” In the forefront are the credulous victims of Gardner’s recent hoaxes: an elaborate treatise that demonstrated the power of pyramid-shaped structures to preserve life and sharpen razor blades, and “proof” by a fictional Dr. Matrix that the millionth digit of, if it were ever computed, would be the number 5.... Professors at Stanford University have just programmed a computer to carry to the millionth digit. To everyone’s surprise — especially the hoaxer’s — the number turned out to be 5. [8] *** “I particularly enjoy writing columns that overlap with philosophical issues. For example, I did a column a few years ago on a marvelous paradox called Newcomb’s paradox, in decision theory. It’s a very intriguing paradox and I’m not sure that it’s even resolved. And then every once in a while I get a sort of scoop. The last scoop that I got was when I heard about a public-key cryptography system at MIT. I realized what a big breakthrough this was and based a column on it, and that was the first publication the general public had on it.” [14] *** “I’m very ill at ease in front of an audience,” Gardner said. He was asked how he knew he was ill at ease if he had never done it, and that stumped him for a moment. His wife interjected: “The fact is he doesn’t want to do 10 D. RICHARDS it the same way he doesn’t want to shop for clothes. To my knowledge he’ll shop only for books.” [19] *** “My earliest hobby was magic, and I have retained an interest in it ever since. Although I have written no general trade books on conjuring, I have written a number of small books that are sold only in magic shops, and I continue to contribute original tricks to magic periodicals. My second major hobby as a child was chess, but I stopped playing after my college days for the simple reason that had I not done so, I would have had little time for anything else. The sport I most enjoyed watching as a boy was baseball, and most enjoyed playing was tennis. A hobby I acquired late in life is playing the musical saw.” [13] *** Gardner himself does not own a computer (or, for that matter, a fax or answering machine). He once did — and got hooked playing chess on it.

“Then one day I was doing dishes with my wife, and I looked down and saw the pattern of the chessboard on the surface on the water,” he recalls.

The retinal retention lasted about a week, during which he gave his computer to one of his two sons. “I’m a scissors-and-rubber-cement man.” [23] *** Gardner takes refuge in magic, at which he probably is good enough to earn yet another living. Gardner peers at the world with such wide-eyed wonder as to inspire trust in all who meet him. But when Gardner brings out his green baize gaming board, the wise visitor will keep his money in his pocket. [10] *** “Certain authors have been a big influence on me,” Gardner says, and enumerates them. Besides Plato and Kant, there are G. K. Chesterton, William James, Charles S. Peirce, Miguel de Unamuno, Rudolf Carnap, and H. G.

Wells. From each Gardner has culled some wisdom. “From Chesterton I got a sense of mystery in the universe, why anything exists,” he expounds.

“From Wells I took his tremendous interest in and respect for science.”...

“I don’t believe God interrupts natural laws or tinkers with the universe,” he remarks. From James he derived his notion that belief in God is a matter of faith only. “I don’t think there’s any way to prove the existence of God logically.” [23] *** “In a way I regret spending so much time debunking bad science. A lot of it is a waste of time. I much more enjoyed writing the book with Carnap, or The Ambidextrous Universe, and other books about math and science.” [26] MARTIN GARDNER: A “DOCUMENTARY” 11 *** “As a member of a group called the mysterians I believe that we have no idea whether free will exists or how it works.... The mysterians are not an organized group or anything. We don’t hold meetings. Mysterians believe that at this point in our evolutionary history there are mysteries that cannot be resolved.” [25] *** “There are, and always have been, destructive pseudo-scientific notions linked to race and religion; these are the most widespread and the most damaging. Hopefully, educated people can succeed in shedding light into these areas of prejudice and ignorance, for as Voltaire once said: ‘Men will commit atrocities as long as they believe absurdities.’ ” [7] *** “In the medical field [scientific ignorance] could lead to horrendous results.People who don’t understand the difference between a controlled experiment and claims by some quack may die as a result of not taking medical science seriously. One of the most damaging examples of pseudoscience is false memory syndrome. I’m on the board of a foundation exposing this problem.” [21] *** “Martin never sold out,” Diaconis said. “He would never do anything that he wasn’t really interested in, and he starved. He was poor for a very long time until he fit into something. He knew what he wanted to do.... It really is wonderful that he achieved what he achieved.” [19] References [1] Martin Gardner, “Now It Is Now It Isn’t,” Science and Invention, April 1930, p.


[2] Martin Gardner, [Letter], The Cryptogram, No. 2, April 1932, p. 7.

[3] Martin Gardner, “A Puzzling Collection,” Hobbies, September 1934, p. 8.

[4] Tower Topics [University of Chicago], 1939, p. 2.

[5] C. Sharpless Hickman, “Escape to Bohemia,” Pulse [University of Chicago], vol.

4, no. 1, October 1940, pp. 16–17.

[6] LaVere Anderson, “Under the Reading Lamp,” Tulsa World (Sunday Magazine), April 28, 1957, p. 28.

[7] Bernard Sussman, “Exclusive Interview with Martin Gardner,” Southwind [Miami-Dade Junior College], vol. 3, no. 1, Fall 1968, pp. 7–11.

[8] [Stefan Kanfer], “The Mathemagician,” Time, April 21, 1975, p. 63.

[9] Betsy Bliss, “Martin Gardner’s Tongue-in-Cheek Science,” Chicago Daily News, August 22, 1975, pp. 27–29.

12 D. RICHARDS [10] Hank Burchard, “The Puckish High Priest of Puzzles,” Washington Post, March 11, 1976, p. 89.

[11] Sally Helgeson, “Every Day,” Bookletter, vol. 3, no. 8, December 6, 1976, p. 3.

[12] John Braun, “Martin Gardner,” Linking Ring, vol. 58, no. 4, April 1978, pp. 47– 48.

[13] Anne Commire, “[Martin Gardner],” Something About the Author, vol. 16, 1979, pp. 117–119.

[14] Anthony Barcellos, “A Conversation with Martin Gardner,” Two-Year College Mathematics Journal, vol. 10, 1979, pp. 232–244.

[15] Rudy Rucker, “Martin Gardner, Impresario of Mathematical Games,” Science 81, vol. 2, no. 6, July/August 1981, pp. 32–37.

[16] Jerry Adler and John Carey, “The Magician of Math,” Newsweek, November 16, 1981, p. 101.

[17] Sara Lambert, “Martin Gardner: A Writer of Many Interests,” Time-News [Hendersonville, NC], December 5, 1981, pp. 1–10.

[18] Lynne Lucas, “The Math-e-magician of Hendersonville,” The Greenville [South Carolina] News, December 9, 1981, pp. 1B–2B.

[19] Lee Dembart, “Magician of the Wonders of Numbers,” Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1981, pp. 1, 10–21.

[20] Scot Morris, “Interview: Martin Gardner,” Omni, vol. 4, no. 4, January 1982, pp. 66–69, 80–86.

[21] Lawrence Toppman, “Mastermind,” The Charlotte [North Carolina] Observer, June 20, 1993, pp. 1E, 6E.

[22] Martin Gardner, The Flight of Peter Fromm, Dover, 1994. Material taken from the Afterword.

[23] Philip Yam, “The Mathematical Gamester,” Scientific American, December 1995, pp. 38, 40–41.

[24] Istvan Hargittai, “A Great Communicator of Mathematics and Other Games:

A Conversation with Martin Gardner,” Mathematical Intelligencer, vol. 19, no. 4, 1997, pp. 36–40.

[25] Michael Shermer, “The Annotated Gardner,” Skeptic, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 56–61.

[26] Kendrick Frazier, “A Mind at Play,” Skeptical Enquirer, March/April 1998, pp.


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