Eye on the News

Stefan Kanfer
The Mathemagician
Martin Gardner, R.I.P.
27 May 2010

The first time I encountered a column in Scientific American entitled “Mathematical Games,” I thought it was a contradiction in terms. Along with most English majors, I equated math with drudgery, not diversion. Then I read the piece. Its author, Martin Gardner, showed me how wrong I was. Over the years, he also showed me (and a few million others) how to understand topics that ranged from the left-handedness of molecules to the devious origins of Scientology to the secrets of sleight-of-hand artists to the in-jokes of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So it came as no surprise that when Gardner died last week at 95, he was mourned not only by mathematicians and physicists but by magicians, literary scholars, theologians, crossword-puzzle fans, writers, and editors. Indeed, the author of some 80 books was a classic example of the polymath (according to Webster’s: “From the Greek polymathēs, ‘having learned much’; a person, with superior intelligence, whose expertise spans a significant number of subject areas”).

The son of an Oklahoma-based oil prospector, Gardner gave no hint of what was to come when he attended local schools in Tulsa. He went on to the University of Chicago, majoring in philosophy and attending a wide variety of courses—but not a single one in math. “Beyond calculus,” he was to confess, “I am lost. The only way I could comprehend higher mathematics was to make a game of it.” Gamesmanship became an integral part of his long life—and perhaps the most important part.

“Sometimes I think it would be nice to grow up,” he liked to say well into his 90s. “Other times I think, ‘Why bother?’” After college and a stint in the Navy during World War II, Gardner followed Yogi Berra’s celebrated aphorism, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” One road led him to write articles on logic for such specialized quarterlies as Scripta Mathematica, the other to contribute games and poetry to Humpty Dumpty, a leading children’s magazine in the 1940s and 1950s. Every month, he offered moral quatrains worthy of Pecksniff: “It pays to be polite, my girl / In everything you do / You’ll find when you’re polite to friends / They’ll be polite to you.”

Gardner finally curbed his doggerel in the late fifties when he began his Scientific American column. It soon made him a worldwide intellectual celebrity—and the clown prince of science. In addition to sober observations and elucidations, the column ran some straight-faced hoaxes. These included the awed discovery of a motor powered by psychic energy; a newly discovered da Vinci notebook proving that the flush toilet was a Renaissance invention; and “proof,” by a fictional Dr. Matrix, that the millionth digit of pi was the number 5.

Gardner’s unique amalgam of the serious and the antic provided a bridge over the “gulf of mutual incomprehension” that, C. P. Snow argued, lay between the technical and literary cultures. Biologist Jacob Bronowski was a fan; poet W. H. Auden quoted from Gardner’s work; and in his novel Ada, Vladimir Nabokov paid a twinkling tribute by mentioning one Martin Gardiner [sic], “an invented philosopher.” Will Shortz, the crossword editor at the New York Times, recalled that Gardner’s “judicious work made me dream of a career in puzzling.” Biologist Stephen Jay Gould called Gardner “the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surround us.” And scientist Douglas Hofstadter judged Gardner to be “one of the great intellects produced in this country in the 20th century.”

Yet with all the interest his columns provoked, Gardner’s books attracted the largest and most devoted audience. His most popular volume, The Annotated Alice, set the style for scores of imitators who would later publish annotated versions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dracula, Frankenstein, Huckleberry Finn, the Sherlock Holmes canon, Shakespeare, the Bible, and others. In Alice, he ran the original Victorian poems alongside Lewis Carroll’s parodies, explained why and how the eccentric Oxford don had filled Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass with the personae of playing cards and chessmen, and charted the battle of matter versus antimatter.

Another Gardner book had nearly as many adherents worldwide. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science investigated and then debunked a series of pseudoscientific claimants. Among them were creationists; dowsers—people who insist that they can find water, oil, or gold with a forked stick; Lysenkoists—those who hold that acquired characteristics can be inherited, a cornerstone of Soviet genetics; hawkers of orgone energy boxes, in which the believer sits for hours collecting sexual energy; and Dianetics, the cultish forerunner of Scientology. First published in 1957, Fads has never gone out of print.

Gardner made a point of identifying his town of residence on the last page of every book. For decades, the Gardner home was in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and when we moved there in the 1970s, I wrote Martin a fan letter. It turned out that we lived three blocks apart, and one wintry night he invited my family to meet his for a preprandial drink. While the adults sipped Manhattans, carefully made according to the author’s secret recipe, Gardner did number, card, and coin tricks for two hours. The kids called him a “mathemagician.”

I was then on the staff of Time and talked the science editor into allowing me to do a profile of Gardner. Martin agreed to be interviewed, but he had absolutely no ego, and getting him to talk about himself took the better part of a week. When I was working on the piece, a worried call came in. “I hope I haven’t blown my horn too much,” he said apologetically. To bolster the story, I also interviewed magician James (“the Amazing”) Randi, another Gardner fan. When I told him about Gardner’s call, Randi laughed. “Martin doesn’t have a horn. He doesn’t need one. Geniuses never do.”

Tired of deadlines, Gardner gave up the Scientific American column in the late eighties, pulled up stakes in Westchester, and retired to North Carolina. Upon his wife’s death, he relocated to Norman, Oklahoma to be near his son Jim, a University of Oklahoma professor, and his three grandchildren. We phoned each other sporadically over the last few years, and the one word that seemed to characterize him was “equanimity.” He rarely traveled to Gatherings 4 Gardner, a celebration of his life and work that occurs every two years in Atlanta. But he was always delighted to note that the attendees felt free to go on without him. They included brilliant scientists from Europe and America, accomplished computer programmers (and hackers), and some of the most dazzling magicians in the world. Martin was also pleased to find that when professors at Stanford University found a way to carry pi to the millionth digit, the number turned out to be 5.

But the nonagenarian took the greatest pride in the fact that his mind remained elastic and antic. Gardner’s last book, Jinn from Hyperspace, was issued in his 93rd year. It included essays on string theory, the false-memory syndrome, and, of course, math and logic. In one entry, he challenged the reader: “There is a certain event that I guarantee will or will not take place during the next ten minutes. You are absolutely incapable of predicting correctly whether it will or won’t occur. I don’t mean that it’s unlikely you can predict it. I mean it is logically impossible to predict it!

“You don’t believe it? Then do the following. If you think the event will occur, write ‘Yes’ inside the blank rectangle below. If you think it won’t happen, write ‘No’ inside the rectangle below. If you predicted correctly, I’ll send you a million dollars.

“The event is: You will write ‘No’ inside the rectangle.”

A vast intelligence, playful to the end. R.I.P.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of a biography of Marlon Brando, Somebody.

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