Monday, June 28, 2010

Goodbye, Mr.Gardner

A few years ago, after I finished a presentation at an elementary school in Norman, Oklahoma, a boy came up to tell me that his great grandpa also liked to make math fun. "Who's your great grandpa?" I asked. "Martin Gardner," he said.

Martin Gardner! He might as well have told me that his great grandpa was God. No doubt about it, Martin Gardner, creator of the witty and mind-bending "Mathematical Games" column that ran for 24 years in Scientific American, could be called the God of recreational math. And Gardner was more than that. He wrote more than 70 books on subjects as diverse as philosophy, magic and literature -- The Annotated Alice, his definitive guide to Lewis Carroll's classic, was perhaps his best selling title. He was also a leading debunker of pseudoscience: after retiring from Sci Am, he sicked his penetrating logical powers on purveyors of quackery, ESP, UFOs and the like in a column called "Notes of a Fringe Watcher," published for 19 years in The Skeptical Inquirer.

Poet W.H. Auden, sci fi author Arthur C.Clarke, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and astronomer Carl Sagan were among his many admirers. Vladamir Nabokov named him in a novel. Astrophysicists named an asteroid after him.

Martin Gardner died last month at the age of 95. He had continued to write and publish until the last months of his life. His last article, on the pseudoscience of Oprah Winfrey, was published in March. But he will always be remembered most fondly as bringing math to millions. Of many tributes I have read, my favorite is from mathematician Ronald Graham: "He has turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children."

It doesn't get any better than that.

When I read some of his obits, looking for impressive biographical material, I was surprised to find that Martin Gardner, despite his godly status, struggled to keep one step ahead of his readers. When Scientific American asked him to write a column on mathematical games, he hit the secondhand bookshops to find books about math puzzles. This became his m.o. for years as he attempted to meet his monthly deadline. "The number of puzzles I've invented you could count on your fingers," he told The New York Times.

Can you believe it? Martin Gardner, deity, scrambling to come up with the next mathematical game for his readers, and not always as original as we assumed. It reminds me of myself with this blog! Actually, it reminds me of myself with my books, and probably many other non-fiction authors with theirs. Students, teachers and librarians often seem to think we have a magical facility for turning the facts of the world into mellifluous, riveting prose, but actually we're just folks who get out there to do research, write and rewrite until we're blue in the face, and finally come up with something we're not too embarrassed to send to a waiting readership (and reviewership) -- then we hold our collective breath in the hope that someone will like it. Martin Gardner, who never took a college class in mathematics (he graduated in philosophy from the University of Chicago), wrote of the research for his Sci Am columns, "It took me so long to understand what I was writing about, that I knew how to write about it so most readers would understand it." He took complex mathematical concepts and turned them into puzzles, explaining them clearly in playful, witty, inviting ways. According to Douglas Martin's obituary in The New York Times, Gardner said his talent was asking good questions and transmitting the answers clearly and crisply.

Isn't this the talent that all non-fiction authors strive to develop? For those as successful as Martin Gardner, it expresses itself effortlessly and abundantly. The rest of us it keep plugging away at it, as if it were a Martin Gardner puzzle.


April Pulley Sayre said...

Great post, David. I'm going to look up some of Martin Gardner's books and columns, now. He sounds remarkable.

Vicki Cobb said...

Thanks. David. I too am a great fan of Martin Gardner. Don't minimize his scrambling or his apologies for not being an original. His brilliance was making math accessible. And that is enough to pay tribute to, as you have done so eloquently

mrsmstweet said...

Thanks for sharing. I hope that his grandchildren are about to carry on his writing abilities. I need to get my hands on his book about Alice because that story just drives me crazy. I can't understand most of it!