Martin Gardner: America’s Mathemagician

By Terry Stickels – June 7, 2010

When he was writing his Mathematical Games column for Scientific American magazine, the Washington Post called his office “the mathematical center of the earth.” His book Relativity for the Million (later reprinted as The Relativity Explosion, Random House, 1976) is still considered to be the best explanation of Einstein’s theories. Yet, consider this: He’s never taken a college course in mathematics or physics.

His expertise is not “limited” to the numbers and symbols that envelop our universe; his mental dexterity has led him to write brilliantly in the fields of magic, puzzles, philosophy, pseudoscience, and children’s literature. There are few, if any, limits on the talents of omniheurist (solver of all problems) and American treasure Martin Gardner. In all, there are 80 plus books, countless articles and columns, each meticulously researched and perspicuously written, that stand as a glowing testament to his lifelong pursuit of knowledge, truth – and fun.

Growing Up
Martin Gardner was one of three children born to Dr. James and Willie Wilkerson Spiers Gardner of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on October 21, 1914. His mother was a devout Orthodox Methodist and the lessons of the church were not lost on young Martin. His formal Protestant upbringing would lead to a lifetime fascination with religion.

Gardner’s father was a geologist and lover of magic, so it followed naturally that Martin became fascinated with science and magic at an early age. By the time Gardner was in high school, he was a regular contributor to The Sphinx, a magazine dedicated to magic.

The College Years
Because of his love of math and physics, Gardner’s original plans were to attend California Institute of Technology, where he intended to major in physics. Because of a chain of events, most of which were out of his control, Gardner instead majored in philosophy at the University of Chicago.

He was an excellent student, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1936. His experiences and studies during these years would lay the foundation of what would be a relentless dedication to the scientific method: seeking conclusions based on logic and evidence.

It was also during this period that Gardner began to question Methodist fundamentalism; those long-held views were crashing head-on into the scientific philosophy he found at the university. Out of this experience would come one of his most critically acclaimed books, The Flight of Peter Fromm, (William Kaufman, 1973). The healthy skepticism he developed during his undergraduate days would serve as one of the driving forces of his literary life.

The Beginning of a Great Writer
After graduation, he worked for a short time as a writer for the Tulsa Tribune and then in the public relations department at the University of Chicago.

In 1941, he enlisted in the Navy and was a yeoman on a destroyer escort until the end of World War 2. After the war, Gardner returned to the University of Chicago, took an occasional graduate course in philosophy, and began his career as a freelance writer. He sold his first humorous story to Esquire magazine. Red Skelton happened to read it. When Skelton mentioned the column on the air, Gardner’s literary career was out of the starting blocks. Esquire bought a dozen of Gardner’s stories over the next few years, and he moved to New York, where he could have ready access to the excellent research material found in the city’s main public library.

New York would be Gardner’s home until 1981. He was married to Charlotte Greenwald in 1952, and they raised two sons in their home on the Hudson. In the early ’50s, Gardner’s boyish enthusiasm and sense of wonderment, guarded by his keen mind, led him to explore a broadening spectrum of interests. With his skeptic’s drawn sword, he found the world of pseudoscience a perfect enemy to engage in battle.

Martin’s 1st Book
A literary agent talked him into writing his first book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (originally named In the Name of Science, republished by its current name in 1957 by Dover). The book is a tough yet amusing attack on pseudo-scientific topics such as ufology, phrenology, ESP, and dianetics. Gardner would write several more books on pseudoscience and eventually become one of the founding fathers of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which publishes a quarterly titled The Skeptical Inquirer. Composed of magicians and scientists, the group made huge strides into debunking many of the claims made by “psychics.” The committee is still active in those endeavors today.

At the time Gardner was writing Fads and Fallacies, he was also contributing editor for the children’s magazine Humpty Dumpty. He spent eight happy years with the magazine and discovered that his love of word play was equal to that of math and science. It would lead to more than 20 books, essays, and light verse. Gardner wrote stories, poems, and games for Humpty Dumpty. His claim to fame, though, was the “cutout” pages he created. He encouraged his young readers to damage the pages with ingenious exercises involving coloring, pasting, folding, and “cutouts.” Little did he know that this desire to wreck paper would lead to a 25-year relationship with Scientific American.

Gardner and Scientific American
Gardner had written one article for Scientific American on Logic Machines in 1952, featuring a cardboard punch-out sheet. His big break came in 1956 when he wrote a story for Scientific American on Hexaflexagons, structures folded out of paper. The inventors of the flexagons were a group of Princeton students that included an eventual Nobel Prize winner, physicist Richard Feynman. The publisher of Scientific American, Gerry Piel, was impressed. He asked Gardner if he had enough material to write a monthly column on recreational mathematics. Gardner assured him that he had plenty of material, and a columnist was born.

The only problem was Gardner did not own a single math book. He rushed out and bought as many books on “fun math” as he could and subscribed to a dozen math journals. “The fact that I don’t have any formal training in math has worked to my advantage. If I don’t understand what I’m writing about, my readers won’t either. I have to do a lot of work on each column,” Gardner said. Gardner retired from Scientific American in 1981. His entire work for the magazine now resides in a 14-volume collection.

Annotating Alice
In the 1960s and ’70s, Gardner’s prolific writing produced books and articles at a seemingly exponential rate. In addition to his math games and science books, he started a series of “annotated” works. His most successful, The Annotated Alice, (C.N. Potter, 1960), is a footnoted commentary on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Fifty plus years after its release, it still sells more than 40,000 copies a year.

In a 1981 interview with Omni magazine, Gardner said, “I have always found Lewis Carroll a fascinating person. He was a professional mathematician whose books are filled with all kinds of logical and mathematical jokes. The chapters of Through the Looking-Glass actually are based on a series of chess moves.” This led to The Annotated Casey at the Bat (C.N. Potter, 1967), which gained widespread fame when it was reprinted in Sports Illustrated. To date. there are eight annotated Gardner books, the latest being The Annotated Night Before Christmas (Random House, 1991).

Fun through Anonymity
As if these efforts were not prodigious enough, there is more. Apparently, Gardner has written other books both anonymously and under pseudonyms. Only the author knows for certain the reasons for this, but given Gardner’s penchant for play, one might suspect he’s having a little fun.

In Confessions of a Psychic, an “anonymously” written booklet, some of “psychic” Uri Geller’s secrets are revealed. In Gardner’s “Science: Good, Bad and Bogus” (Prometheus, 1981), he refers to Confessions in a footnote stating, “It contains the most detailed explanations to date of Geller’s methods.”

More Than Just a Writer
Through the years, Gardner has become friends with the leading mathematicians, physicists, and magicians of the world, often seeking their assistance and offering his. His devotees are legion. Conferences are held to discuss his work, but Gardner still considers himself an amateur. He once turned down the “Scientist of the Year” award from a prestigious university, remarking, “They were fooled by my writing into thinking I’m a highly trained, true mathematician.”

Although Gardner may consider himself an amateur, there is ample evidence to suggest otherwise. Example: In the early 1950s, Gardner wrote a paper titled “Is Nature Ambidextrous?” In this paper, he “considered the possibility that someday a basic law of nature might prove to be left-right asymmetric.” Five years later, his hypothesis was proven to be true, which led him to write “an entire book about mirror­ reflection symmetry” (now published as The New Ambidextrous Universe, W.H. Freeman).

Staying Out of the Limelight
Like Lewis Carroll, Gardner abhors fame, politely refusing all requests for public appearances. He will do an occasional magic trick for friends – especially mathematicians and scientists, who, according to Gardner, are the easiest to fool. In fact, it seems that too many scientists have been bamboozled in areas that should fall under the magic category, he asserts. It dismays Gardner to no end how reputable professionals can become prey to the “quackery of parapsychology” and other pseudoscientific phenomena. Many of his essays and books recount stories of onetime scientific heroes who have been taken in by “bad science.”

Of course, Gardner’s truth-seeking mission spans beyond the scientific community. From Shirley MacLaine in The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher (Prometheus, 1988) to Conan Doyle in Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (Prometheus, 1981): If he perceives a phony, he’ll get them. Gardner knows better than most that it takes a conjurer to catch one.

Gardner can cut through nonsense like few others. Never condescending to the reader, he states his points clearly. The weight of the evidence he brings to bear is hard to dismiss, even if you happen to be skeptical of a skeptic.

Martin Gardner’s Passing
Gardner moved to Norman, Oklahoma, in 2002, to be near his son James. He lived in an assisted living facility and continued his work until the day he died, which was May 22, 2010. He was 95 years old. Martin had seen this article and thought I had covered most of the essential things about his life. As I remember, he gave me one or two sentences of approval with no emotion. He had a difficult time getting overly interested in articles covering him in any manner. He really was that modest. When I went to see him in Norman he enjoyed discussing the things most people like to discuss: the economy, politics, weather, food… but his interest would intensify if I told him I had a new puzzle or asked if he had read the most recent article about Roger Penrose, Richard Feynman or anyone who had anything to say about math, science, puzzles, critical thinking, etc. He would like it even more if I or anyone could make him laugh while telling a story. If I went on and on about the genius of this man and his prolific accomplishments, he wouldn’t like it. So, this article is done and in closing I would like to encourage you to discover Mr. Gardner on your own as I did years ago. It will be a treat you can enjoy over and over.

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