Martin Gardner has died

by Henry Farrell on May 23, 2010

Details “here”: Michael Dirda “wrote a lovely article”: on his last book (which I haven’t read) a few months ago. I don’t know whether I prefer Gardner’s “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science” (one of the two lodestones of this literature, along with Sladek’s “The New Apocrypha”), his collections of light articles on mathematics, or the “Annotated Alice.” They were all wonderful.



DaveMB 05.23.10 at 4:09 am

I think I owe my career as a mathematician to the Mathematical Games articles in the huge piles of Scientific Americans in my dad’s basement — most of the 1960’s, as I recall. “That’s neat — does it always work out like that?” is the essence of mathematical thinking, and he showed it to me with examples that a ten-year-old could understand.

Didn’t Fads and Fallacies include takedowns of chiropractic and organic farming?


Russell L. Carter 05.23.10 at 4:42 am

Oh dear. Nobody had a bigger effect on a lost soul lost in suburbia in the late 70’s than did MG’s column in Scientific American.

When I was 20, the neo-laffer curve crystallized for me the stupidity of the entire conservative project:

And viewed from the ramparts of the present, those were intellectual times.


Russell L. Carter 05.23.10 at 5:08 am


Colin Danby 05.23.10 at 6:31 am

The Bad Astronomy thread also contains lots of childhood reminiscence, a tribute to the kind of influence Gardner had. For me too — I read the “Mathematical Games” columns as a kid and then hunted up the books. How did he do it? He never talked down, and he never sounded like school. Dave MB is right — it was about cool things and trying stuff out. He made you feel you could join the conversation.


Scott McLemee 05.23.10 at 11:08 am

Fads and Fallacies is one of those books I can reread every few years with as much pleasure and amazement as the first time, and this might be the day to do it again. There’s also his great, definitive study of The Urantia Book (see this review). It is quintessentially Gardnerian — nobody other than Gardner would have written it, and there’s something about Urantia itself that makes it seem like a book he could have written as a joke.


Matt 05.23.10 at 2:16 pm

I liked his skeptical writings (His and Randi’s had an important influence on me when I was a younger teenager), and later enjoyed the book he edited of Carnap’s lecture on the philosophy of science. He had been a student of Carnap’s at Chicago, I know (maybe that saved him from some of the bad influences of that place) and I’d thought these were his own lecture notes, but I guess they were from a set of lectures in California. Still, I suspect his own experience as Carnap’s student helped. Sad that he’s gone.


MR Bill 05.23.10 at 4:04 pm

Greatly missed. The Mathematical Games column should be widely used in the schools, and Science, Good, Bad and Bogus is a book I read and reread until it fell apart.

And I seem to remember, and can’t find, a screed from Brian Eno, of all people, criticizing Gardner for not realizing the use of the irrational and the appeal of an Oracle (I think maybe astrology or the Tarot were his examples), from the ’80’s…


Vance Maverick 05.23.10 at 4:13 pm

He made you feel you could join the conversation.

Indeed. After reading about flexagons (in one of the books of collected columns, I think, rather than in the heaps of Scientific American that furnished our home), I worked out a square flexagon of my own, and mailed it to him c/o the magazine. I’ll always be grateful for those columns — and was just recommending them to a kid of about the age I was then, showing similar inclinations.


Ben Alpers 05.23.10 at 5:22 pm

Add me to the list of those who loved his Scientific American columns, which I used to read in my high school library.

I was aware that he had moved to Norman (where I live) in recent years and vaguely hoped that our paths would cross. Sadly, they never did.


Ken Houghton 05.23.10 at 5:23 pm

It’s nice to see Sladek getting credit for something, even if it’s not his fiction.


Steve LaBonne 05.24.10 at 2:24 am

He’ll be greatly missed. Especially sad because he was one of the few remaining links to SciAm as it was when it was a truly great publication, one that when I was a kid I devoured as soon as the latest issue hit my house- and Mathematical Games by no means the least of its pleasures. (I want to retch just looking at the thing nowadays, so horribly has it been dumbed down.)


Vance Maverick 05.24.10 at 3:46 am

For fanatics, the flexagon I worked out myself was this — a new Martin Gardner would find it harder to surprise people.


William Berry 05.24.10 at 5:58 am

I’m no mathematician but I do love good anagrams, palindromes, etc. Wasn’t there a book of Gardner’s “Scientific American” puzzles published in the ’70s called “Metamagical Themis”?

In terms of sense, that’s as good, or better than, “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!”


chris 05.24.10 at 3:03 pm

@William Berry: _Metamagical Themas_ was a collection of essays by Douglas R. Hofstadter; his column name was a deliberate anagram of Gardner’s, but the subject matter was somewhat different.

Either Martin Gardner was a great author who made mathematics and logic accessible, or I am a knave.


Matt Warren 05.24.10 at 4:14 pm

Like some of you, I discovered Martin Gardner when I was younger. He fascinated me. I was (and am) no math-genius, but it turns out he had so much to say. I remember his measured, frank approach. Never talking down. I’ll miss him.

Fortunately for us, he leaves a massive pile of books behind for us to continue to enjoy his wisdom. :)


hardindr 05.24.10 at 4:40 pm

RIP, Martin. We’ll miss you.


bob 05.24.10 at 11:15 pm

#6: While Carnap was a great influence on Gardner at Chicago, remember that in those days the Cult of Milton wasn’t as dominant as later – after all, Paul H. Douglas, who voted for Norman Thomas in 1932, was a Professor of Economics then. Though maybe by “bad influences of the place” you mean Mortimer Adler et al.? However, a real positive influence was Geology Professor J Harlen Bretz. Gardner entered the College as a crazed fundamentalist, having been converted to “Flood Geology” by reading George McCready Price, and when he took a Geology course with Bretz he announced his belief. Bretz actually took the time to read Price and then refuted all of his arguments for Gardner. Gardner’s semi-autobiographical novel The flight of Peter Fromm includes this episode.


Matt 05.24.10 at 11:40 pm

Bob- yes, I mostly meant Mortimer Adler and Richard McKeon and the like as the “bad influences” at Chicago at the time. (I’m not sure if Strauss would have been there yet when Gardner was- maybe when he went back for grad school- but that would have been another bad influence, though not one in the phil dept.)


hardindr 05.25.10 at 12:01 am


If I remember correctly, Gardner only got a bachelors in philosophy and took one Graduate seminar/course in philosophy (I think with Carnap). This was during the early fifties.


Matt 05.25.10 at 12:20 am

Thanks Hardindr- I knew he didn’t take a grad degree. Wikipedia says “attended graduate school for a year” but that would be consistent with taking one grad seminar with Carnap.


chris 05.25.10 at 2:12 pm

Of course, I only realize later that in the same post where I correct someone else who confused Gardner with Hofstadter, I myself confused him with Smullyan. Bleh. I believe they call that Muphry’s Law.

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