Thursday, August 7, 2014

Martin Gardner & the mathematics of joy

The Martin Gardner Home Site continues to expand in the year of the Martin Gardner Centennial 1914-2014. You can follow the Twitter account for constant updates on all things Martin Gardner. I checked up on Martin Gardner's Puzzle Books. Then I wrote the following.

I think a number of these puzzle books are not present in my Martin Gardner collection. I get a lot of input on MG as this is his centennial year. Of course, he is known for his contributions to the skeptics movement as well as his expertise as a magician and his annotated publications of classic works, but it is still his role in the area of mathematical recreations and popularization that garners the lion's share of devotion. Though an amateur without professional credentials or expertise, professional mathematicians consider him one of the most important mathematical figures of the 20th century.

I thought about this in conjunction with just having watched a video of Sonny Rollins explaining why jazz matters, in the wake of a New Yorker spoof of jazz published under his name without permission. It is interesting, and important I think, that Martin Gardner has had the impact he has, considering how many people find mathematics a dry subject. The key to this is that he not only educated people, not only provided them with intellectual stimulation, but he made them happy! He made me happy. The constant factor in everyone's tributes to him is . . . joy!

When I ponder this, I am very moved. These things matter.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

William Sanders Scarborough, reason, & the anti-racist struggle

There is an incredible history of Black American intellectuals, stretching back to the era of slavery, and of outstanding intellectual achievement against overwhelming odds. Intertwined with this history is a history of Black American scholars of the Greek and Roman classics, who pursued and transmitted their expertise, took on administrative functions in higher education, and as writers and activists pursued the goal of racial equality. It is a noble and inspiring history.

One such pioneer was William Sanders Scarborough (1852-1926). I will have more to say about him and the larger tradition later on. (For now, see another post: William Sanders Scarborough & Volapük in the Black Press.) Here is an excerpt from Scarborough's essay opposing the prevailing superstition of  "Race Integrity" (i.e. racial purity and superiority).
This age is regarded as one of great enlightenment. Yet With all its knowledge, there is a vast deal of ignorance or wilful blindness manifested along some lines. This state is born of many things, but when based upon traditional ideas, deep rooted, not only in error, but in prejudice and malice, there we find the most insensate manifestations.

Cherished beliefs, no matter upon what founded, have always resulted in rearing idols to be worshiped. Before such icons the world has bowed again and again. Religion has had its share of them, but the religious world also raised idol-breakers—the Iconoclasts who set to work in the eighth and ninth centuries to shatter them as did the Protestants in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century Dogmas have crept into every phase of human life and endeavor, and no doubt will continue to do so, while mankind exists with its passions, its prejudices and its weaknesses, its preconceived notions and its obstinacy; so the labors of the Iconoclast have been and will be demanded for the sake of progress.

Among the multitude of cherished superstitions to which world-masses cling at one time or another, there are none more erroneous, more mischievous than that included under the unctuous expression, “Race Integrity.” Here is heroic, legitimate work for the Iconoclast. Here his labors are an absolute necessity. But we are aware that to lay hands upon this idol, to tear it from its place, will covenant profaning the holy altar itself; that there are those who, viewing such an act, will fear that punishment to follow that overtook Uzziah when he sought simply to steady the ark on the memorable journey from Kirjathjearim. There is no doubt whether that if the ranting Dixons and Tilmans and Vardamans and men of that ilk could become avenging fates, any one who dared attempt to shatter this idol would suffer instant annihilation.

But in the progress of civilization those who would overthrow cherished superstitions have had to suffer. Galileo’s idea of the world systems ran counter to set theories, and under awful penalties he had to recant, though he whispered under his breath “E pur si muove.” “It moves for all that.” Luther, Cranmer, Latimer and countless other martyrs have suffered when seeking to pull the bandage from eyes so long blinded, and let in the light of truth. Today no one disputes Galileo’s claim; and theological freedom of thought and expression agrees with Luther and others of his school.

These men had to suffer I say; but they did good service and accepted the stake, or dungeon, or ban, bravely for the sake of truth. They shattered falsity; and the Iconoclast of today will render equally good service in dissipating the errors of the present, none of which, I repeat, is worse than the hydra-headed dogma that masquerades under the alluring title of Race Integrity—the one of all of Errors’ vile brood, most fitly designed to perpetuate race discrimination, race hatred and race conflict.

To the task of an Iconoclast I propose to devote this article, with the postulate that there is no such thing as “Race Integrity.”

SOURCE: Scarborough, William Sanders. “Race Integrity,” in The Works of William Sanders Scarborough: Black Classicist and Race Leader, edited by Michele Valerie Ronnick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 473-481. Above excerpt from beginning of article, pp. 473-474. Original publication: Voice of the Negro 4, no. 4 (1907): 197-202.