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.

4 comments:

AmOK said...

Thanks for reminding us of the fun and games of youth. Thank you Martin Gardner.

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vbalki said...

Two additional remarks on your post about Martin Gardner:

"Fads and Fallacies" is an all-time classic that I was lucky enough to encounter when I was at college. There's a later version of the book with a title that goes something like: Science--Good, Bad and Bogus, as I recall.

Martin Gardner was also the first to draw attention to the possibility of quasicrystals with his detailed article on Penrose tilings. The rest is history.