Martin Gardner: Scientific and philosophical writer celebrated for his ingenious mathematical puzzles and games
Saturday 29 May 2010
Martin Gardner was of the great intellects of our time, writing engagingly and wittily on a remarkably wide range of subjects.
His main interests were philosophy and religion, and especially the philosophy of science, but his writings went far beyond these areas. Further, he was comfortable with difficult and abstract subjects; he wrote a book explaining relativity, which he updated a few times, and wrote a book, too, about parity in the universe called The Ambidextrous Universe. In a book of essays The Night is Large: collected essays 1938-1995, he organised his lifelong intellectual interests into these categories: physical science, social science, pseudoscience, mathematics, the arts, philosophy, and religion.
In 1956 he began to provide a monthly column for Scientific American called "Mathematical Games"; it offered puzzles, tricks and riddles, and sometimes difficult mathematical problems. "They approach mathematics in a spirit of fun, but combined with the fun there is an earnest effort to lead the reader into areas of mathematics that are far from trivial," he said of it.
He wrote about the "sense of surprise that all great mathematicians feel, and all great teachers of mathematics are able to communicate" and that he knew of no better way to do this than "by way of games, puzzles, paradoxes, magic tricks, and all the other curious paraphernalia of 'recreational mathematics'."
The monthly columns were a regular feature of Scientific American for 25 years, and he continued to provide occasional pieces after that. After retiring he said that a continuing pleasure was receiving letters from mathematicians telling him it was his column that had first aroused their interest in the subject.
Gardner was also a famous debunker of pseudoscientific claims. His first book in that genre, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952), had 26 chapters, nearly each of which attacked a different crank theory. Among his targets were flat-earthers, partisans of flying saucers, Lysenkoism, the Forteans, medical cults and quacks, William Horatio Bates's method for Cure of Imperfect Eyesight by Treatment Without Glasses, Wilhelm Reich's orgonomy, and dianetics.
He remarked once: "Thanks to the freedom of our press and the electronic media, the voices of cranks are often louder and clearer than the voices of genuine scientists. Crank books – on how to lose weight without cutting down on calories, on how to talk to plants, on how to cure your ailments by rubbing your feet, on how to apply horoscopes to your pets, on how to use ESP in making business decisions, on how to sharpen razor blades by putting them under little models of the great Pyramid of Egypt – far outsell many books... I reserve the right of moral indignation."
He was a founding Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims for the Paranormal (CSICOP, pronounced "psycop"). He believed it the "duty of both scientists and science writers to keep exposing errors of bad science, especially in medical fields, in which false beliefs can cause needless suffering and even death". He regularly wrote articles for the publication Skeptical Inquirer, many of which were collected into books. In the March/April 2010 issue he critically analysed Oprah Winfrey, and alleged that among her TV guests were people who preached medically worthless views. The biologist Stephen Jay Gould called Gardner "the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surround us".
He had yet other interests: he published books that he annotated in detail, such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, & Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, The Ancient Mariner, the American baseball ballad Casey at the Bat, as well as the ballad The Night Before Christmas. He once said: "I really don't do any work. I just play all the time, and am fortunate enough to get paid for it."
In Gardner's introduction to the Alice books he wrote: "The last level of metaphor in the Alice books is this: that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician." He also said: "Laughter is a kind of no man's land between faith and despair. We preserve our sanity by laughing at life's surface absurdities, but the laughter turns to bitterness and derision if directed toward the deeper irrationalities of evil and death".
Gardner was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1914. He studied philosophy at the University of Chicago and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from there in 1936. He took no maths courses, and said later that he would have, had he known he would be writing one day a column on the subject. He learnt as he went along: "There is no better way to learn anything than to write about it," he said.
He had entered the University of Chicago as a Protestant fundamentalist, but lost his faith in Christianity. He described this "painful transition" in his semi-autobiographical novel The Flight of Peter Fromm, in which a young man from a fundamentalist Pentecostal background in Oklahoma loses his faith while a student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His mentor, a divinity school professor – who believes neither in God nor an afterlife – narrates the story. Peter never abandons his theism, but comes to question his evangelical goals and his relationship to the church.
Gardner's own belief in God had been "bound up with an ugly Protestant fundamentalism". He outgrew this slowly, and eventually decided he could not call himself a Christian without using language deceptively. However, his faith in God and in immortality remained. He called himself a philosophical theist. He wrote that "by an emotional leap of faith", he believed in a deity "utterly inscrutable to our little finite minds", that there are "truths as far beyond our grasp as calculus is beyond the grasp of a cat".
Gardner explained his core beliefs in his book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (1983). There he wrote: "It has been said that all philosophers can be divided into two categories: those who divide philosophers into two categories and those who don't. I belong to the first. I believe that the dichotomy between those who believe in a creator God and those who do not is the deepest, most fundamental of all divisions among the attitudes one can take toward the mystery of being."
Carl Sagan, the astronomer, once asked Gardner if it was fair to say that he believed in God solely because it made him feel good. Gardner replied that this was exactly right, though the emotion was deeper than the way one feels good after three drinks. "It is a way of escaping from a deep-seated despair."
Gardner once wrote that for as long as he could remember he had been "impressed, perhaps overwhelmed is more accurate, by the vastness of the universe and the even greater vastness of the darkness that extends beyond the farthest frontiers of scientific knowledge". He said that he believed that the human mind, or even the mind of a cat, is more interesting in its complexity than an entire galaxy that is devoid of life. He called himself a "mysterian", someone who believes that no computer of the kind we know how to build will ever become self-aware or acquire the creative powers of the human mind. "There is a deep mystery about how consciousness emerged as brains became more complex," and we are a long way from understanding how they work.
Martin Gardner, mathematics and science writer: born Tulsa, Oklahoma 21 October 1914; married Charlotte Greenwald (died 2000; two sons); died Norman, Oklahoma 22 May 2010.
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