Sunday, June 13, 2010

Martin Gardner Dead at 95

Martin Gardner is no more. Say it ain't so. I discovered Martin Gardner in the Mathematical Games column of Scientific American, having innocently bought it off the newsstand because of my boyhood interest in science. I think the issue I bought was June or July 1967: his column that month was about John Horton Conway's game "Sprouts". And then I was hooked. My name was published in one issue of Scientific American for my solution of some problem involving "Baker's Solitaire". Names were omitted though, when said article was reprinted in one of Gardner's anthologies. Gardner's columns radiated from the base of recreational mathematics to encompass quite a range of topics. Gardner stimulated my interest in the related hobby of abstract strategy board games, but that was only the beginning. Through Gardner I learned about the artist M.C. Escher, the 19th-century fad of 4-dimensional space, anamorphic art, the godfather of the ars combinatoria Raymond Llull, and numerous other fascinating topics reaching into obscure corners of intellectual history. I also read several of Gardner's books in addition to his collections of Mathematical Games columns, most memorably Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.

Gardner is also known for The Annotated Alice and other volumes, but his two biggest claims to fame are probably his contributions to recreational mathematics and to the "skeptical" movement. I returned to Fads and Fallacies several times over the decades. I was never fully convinced of Gardner's criteria for the demarcation of science and pseudoscience. In addition to dealing with obvious crackpots, he delved into fringe areas where rationality bleeds into irrationality, such as Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics, William Reich's radical psychoanalysis and orgonomy, and Marshall McLuhan's theory of the media. Still, the range of Gardner's examples supplied a background I could draw upon throughout my adult life. This book can be said to have stuck with me, but I will forever be indebted to Gardner for all the wonders to which I was introduced via his work on recreational mathematics.

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