Not long ago, I wrote an article in commemoration of Martin Gardner’s 95th birthday. Sadly, it seems this will be my last article in celebration of his birth, as he passed away late last month.
Through his passing, though, his influence has become even more apparent. Perhaps because he published mathematical games in Scientific American for 25 years, the magazine has been the most visible in its veneration of him. There are no less than six articles on Gardner at the SciAm website; while some are reprints of earlier articles, there is also new material from writers and mathematicians who were influenced in some way by Gardner’s unique career. Since I can’t do justice to Gardner the way others already have, let me summarize what you can find if you’re interested in learning more about this stand-up fellow.
If you’d like to learn more about Gardner’s life, SciAm has reprinted to earlier essays on the man: one is a profile written by Philip Yam, originally published in 1995, and one is a tribute to Gardner’s influence written by Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. For a look into Gardner’s interest in debunking pseudoscience, there is this article written by Michael Shermer, which was originally published in 2002. Or, if you’d just like to try your hand at some recreational math puzzles, there are a couple of articles that give a sample of the material Gardner published in his column. Here’s one for you to stew over, if you like (taken from the first link above):
Arrange four paper matches on a table as shown at right. They represent a martini glass. A match head goes inside to indicate the onion of a Gibson cocktail. The puzzle is to move just two matches so that the glass is re-formed, but the onion—which must stay where it is—winds up outside the glass. At the finish, the glass may be turned to the left or the right, or even be upside down, but it must be exactly the same shape as before.
Finally, there’s also this collection of musings from a few scientists and mathematicians who were influenced in their careers by Gardner’s work. Hofstadter is quoted here, but for my money, a better quote can be found in his earlier article which I cited above:
There should be, it seems to me, be a prestigious national or international prize for writing about scientific ideas. As everybody knows, human civilization relies on science and technology more than at any time in the past, and that reliance can only increase. Yet the worldwide ignorance of and disdain for science, mathematics and precise thinking in general is appalling. Because of this tragic situation, people like Martin are precious purveyors of precious knowledge … if I dare say so, what Martin Gardner has done is of far greater originality than work that has won many people Nobel Prizes. Simultaneously achieving both depth and breadth is almost unheard of in today’s scientific world, but Martin Gardner is an exception, and it is a delight and a privilege to celebrate here his many achievements. Just as Martin’s writings have inspired me for decades, so they will undoubtedly continue to inspire other people for many decades to come.
RIP, Mr. Gardner.