Martin Gardner (1914–2010)
An author of science, philosophy, and games
delighted readers with explanations of how
math is connected to the larger world
On 22 May, American author Martin Gardner died at the age of 95. Until his last days, he was active and writing for an eager audience. He is well known
for his writing on mathematics, science, philosophy of science, theology, and magic.
However, few of his admirers knew the full
breadth of his intellectual activities, as most
were drawn only to some aspect by their own
interest. In contrast to our increasingly specialized world, he was involved in many intellectual spheres.
Gardner would be quick to remind us that
he was a “journalist.” After getting a B.A. in
philosophy at the University of Chicago in
1936, he attended seminary to continue his
studies. After a year, he realized that he was
training for an academic position, but that
his real calling was to be an author. It was a
decade before his writing allowed him to earn
a decent living. A career in fiction gave way to
articles on science, philosophy, and games.
A pivotal article was “The Hermit Scientist” (Antioch Review, 1950) in which Gardner critiqued three examples of pseudoscience that were very much in the news: the
wild theories of writer Immanuel Velikovsky
proposing Earth’s near collision with other
planets; the public craze with unidentified
flying objects; and the idea of a metaphysical
mind-body relationship touted by the science
fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. Gardner’s
opinions on these topics led to his book In the
Name of Science (1952; retitled Fads and Fal-lacies in the Name of Science in 1957), and its
impact increased until the 1970s.
Gardner, magician James Randi, and
psychologist Ray Hyman decided that a
group was needed to address what was then
called the “occult explosion,” an alarming
escalation of irrationalism in the popular
press. Soon they were joined by sociologist Marcello Truzzi and philosopher Paul
Kurtz, and the Committee for the Scientific
Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
was formed. Gardner contributed to their
publications regularly for decades, critically
examining fringe science and paranormal
claims, among other issues.
Gardner is often called the founder of
the modern skeptical movement. His clearly
written articles drew people in, convinced
them that there was a problem worth caring
about, and showed how simple argumenta-
tion could effectively combat unreason. His
writing gave a common voice to those who
were reluctant to speak out alone.
Unlike most authors of nonfiction, Gardner had “fans,” the most ardent ones for his
25 years at Scientific American. His “
Mathematical Games” column, started in 1956,
became so identified with the magazine that
many readers said it was the first thing they
turned to in each issue. Judging by public pronouncements, book dedications, and thousands of letters written to Gardner, his influence on the study and enjoyment of mathematics may well be unmatched.
Gardner often claimed in interviews that
he was unprepared to write a monthly math
column, but in fact, he had a lifelong interest
in recreational mathematics. Admittedly, his
mathematical training was weak, but he said
that having to struggle with concepts helped
him to write clear explanations. Moreover, he
had developed a habit of finding connections
between mathematics and the larger world—
literature, art, science, philosophy, and magic.
This was the secret of the column. He did not
make mathematics interesting; he showed
that it was interesting.
Gardner’s first and last publications
were in magic journals, from 1930 to 2010.
Although never a performer, he was a con-
stant and respected source of ideas for close-
up magic, usually impromptu tricks. He con-
tributed articles on tricks, puzzles, illusions,
Gardner’s success was due to an extraordi-
nary network of correspondents and his leg-
endary files of information. He was the gen-
erous conduit through which ideas flowed, in
the magic, math, and pseudoscience commu-
nities. His files started in shoe boxes while at
college and grew to mammoth proportions.
A description of using them, written in 1957,
sounds remarkably like a modern description
of surfing the Internet.
What motivated Martin Gardner? After a
decade of soul-searching, in a 1940 interview
he articulated a principle he held for the rest
of his life (as expressed by writer Lord Dunsany): “Man is a small thing, and the night is
large and full of wonder.” After World War II,
he studied with philosopher Rudolf Carnap,
which led to his essay “Order and Surprise”
(1950). It describes the deep sense of wonder
that the natural world impresses upon philosophers and scientists. Over the next 60 years,
he would return to this theme. He described
himself as a “mysterian” because he believed
that even though science will continue to
resolve problems, behind every mystery there
is another vexing mystery. This spurred most
of his best writing. He wrote an entire book
(The Ambidextrous Universe) about the paradoxical discovery of fundamental asymme-tries in particle physics. The mathematical
essays concentrated on surprises, unexpected
connections, and paradoxes. His main goal
was to remind us that we are surrounded by
His antipathy for pseudoscientists was not
just because they were cranks, crackpots, or
charlatans. He was furious about those who
practiced medical hocus-pocus. But, in my
opinion, his motivation was almost aesthetic.
He was deeply offended by people offering
“ugly” false phenomena and miracles when
the natural world was so wonderful. We can
honor Martin Gardner by pursuing the mysteries that surround us.
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