Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Martin Gardner - a personal tribute

So Martin Gardner is no more. He died a few days ago, aged 95, having lived a full life, 'puzzling' and 'diverting' youngsters like me for decades. I discovered Martin Gardner in my undergraduate days, through a gift subscription to Scientific American that a kind soul in the US had sent me. (Scientific American also opened my world to myriad different things, including one of the first popular articles on Supergravity, written by two of its founders, Peter van Nieuwenhuizen and Dan Freedman from StonyBrook, where, though I didn't know it then, I was eventually to do my Ph.D -- but that's a different story).

Like many people, I have always had a fascination with puzzles but Gardner's Mathematical Puzzles were in an altogether different class. Some of them were not puzzles but just some quaint facts, mostly about mathematics, which were fascinating (sometimes called recreational mathematics, I suppose). He had a parade of characters, some fictional, some not (I think!). The Incredible Dr Matrix and the magician Sam Loyd, who apparently, like Gardener, was a 19th century mathematics dilettante. I was never quite sure whether he was real! He also introduced card games which we would play -- like Eleusis -- a game, as he called it, of trying to guess the mind of one of the players, who was the 'God'.

Some of his puzzles were quite unbelievable. In one of his numerous 'Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions' books, which were compendiums of his columns, he gives an ordinary division puzzle wherein neither the dividend nor the divisor is known, but the quotient is 80809. The number of long division steps were given but nothing else. It seemed almost unsolvable until I realised, to my great joy, that a little bit of thought could solve the problem and one didn't need to be an Einstein to do these things. One of those little things which showed that some thought, patience and concentration are often what is needed, not an IQ of 200 to solve many things - a salutary lesson for a young man embarking on a career of research in physics.

Martin Gardner was one of the first to annotate Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland with scientific jottings. I remember though, that with so much analysis, his annotations completely spoiled the book for me!

Despite not being a professional scientist, Martin Gardner was also one of the first to take it upon himself to debunk pseudo-science. His Facts and Fallacies in the name of Science was such a book where he takes on everything from homeopathy to astrology, and that quintessential American obsession, flying saucers, long before it was fashionable to be a sceptic. I remember him antagonising many of even my scientist friends for his harsh judgment on homeopathy.

Martin Gardner was succeeded at Scientific American by Douglas Hofstader and his Metamagical Themas, (itself an anagram of Mathematical Games the title of Gardner's column) but even though Hofstader was a very bright computer scientist with a best selling Godel, Escher and Bach under his belt, the magic had gone out of the column and I soon stopped following it. It had lost that ineffable Gardner touch. (Douglas Hofstader charming personal reminiscences of Martin Gardner have been republished in the recent issue of Scientific American.)

I hope in his new and happier hunting grounds, he is providing as much joy as be gave many of us in our growing years. RIP, Martin.

Tailpiece: Readers of this post might want to read an interesting New York Times article on Martin Gardner when he turned 95.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

I too now have a silicone implant -- in fact two!

No! Not there, silly! . Recently I went through what is known as phacoemulsification surgery in both eyes. It's an impressive combination of micro surgery and physics. Under a microscope (with the patient under local anaesthesia) the surgeon makes a 2.5 mm incision in the cornea, through which he pushes in an ultrasound probe that, through a small cut in the lens, dissolves the cataractous inside of the lens and sucks it out (or aspirated as it is called), leaving the outer capsule intact. A foldable silicone lens is then inserted inside the capsule and allowed to open out, thus replacing the original lens with an new intra ocular one of suitable focal length. The new lens is usually chosen so that the patient has almost perfect distant vision, and is given glasses only for reading.

The surgery takes about ten minutes, (while the surgeon chats with you) though the preparation for the surgery takes another fifteen minutes or so. By far the most painful part of the proceedings is the injection of the local anaesthetic which mercifully acts instantly and shuts down the eyelid and also all feeling in that eye. One sees some bright lights and rather unnervingly the shadow of the triangular shaped scalpel that is inserted into the eye to make the initial incision. Bandages are removed the next morning, after which vision is normal though full recovery takes about two weeks.

The sudden perfect clarity of vision is uncanny. For me, who's been wearing glasses since high school, to be able to see every mark on a wall, every leaf in a distant tree, every blemish in the skin of a person sitting opposite can be quite unnerving and I still keep touching my face to feel my non existent spectacles. First thing in the morning, you no longer begin by groping for your glasses before getting out of bed. Everything is crystal clear -- in fact too clear -- the instant you open your eyes. The only problem is reading...since the new lens has a fixed focal length and cannot adjust, no amount of squinting helps you to read -- you have to use glasses for this.

It's possible now to get these intra ocular lenses which have the ability to change their focus, just as the lens you are born with. But they don't work quite as well, and most ophthalmologists advise against them. I suspect though, in a few years time, they will become the standard and it will be like having a zoom lens in the eye :-)

So do I now have a bionic eye?

Tailpiece: I hope this also explains my slightly longish absence from my blog.