'Undiluted Hocus-Pocus': How science columnist Martin Gardner spread joy with numbers and games

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I credit the Martin Gardner's "Mathematical Games" column with sparking my interest in mathematics when I was in high school. For more than 25 years, Martin Gardner wrote a monthly column in Scientific American that mixed magic, art, games and math with clarity. He died on May 22, 2010, at 95 but not before drafting his autobiography, which was recently published.

The book is just a delight to read, especially for those of us who followed his Scientific American column at some point in the past. In addition to the text, the book contains 24 pages of photographs of him from ages 3 to 94, but it was his personal views on life that were most fulfilling to learn.

By Martin Gardner
Princeton University Press ($24.95)

Gardner grew up in Oklahoma, attending Tulsa Central High. He succinctly stated, "High School was like four years in prison." Ah, yes. Many of us who went on to successful careers had similar thoughts. Clearly, Gardner survived. Later in the book, he even admitted to liking high school mathematics and physics, which led directly to his future career, along with a strong interest in magic that began long before high school.

In contrast to high school, Gardner relished his college years at the University of Chicago, where he was free to audit a wide variety courses in addition those taken for credit. His B.A. in philosophy was his only degree, but his skills as a writer would lead to rubbing shoulders with the scientific elite. The book does a fair amount of name-dropping, but it's done in a way that is curious rather than obnoxious.

For example, readers of his column would know of John Conway, the creator of a popular cellular automaton game called "Life," and Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractals, but they may not know that it was Gardner who introduced them to each other for the first time at his house.

So how did an amateur magician with a B.A. in philosophy end up writing the most famous mathematics column for Scientific American? He called it the second luckiest event in his life after meeting his wife, Charlotte, to whom was married for 48 years. His interest in magic led to writing a number of articles on mathematical magic, including two early articles in Scientific American.

The second Scientific American article, in December 1956 (about a folded paper object called a flexagon), led to an offer to write a monthly column that the editors chose to call "Mathematical Games," which had the same initials as Martin Gardner, to his apparent delight. He also enjoyed living in a house at 10 Euclid Ave, not only for the location but also for the address.

If there is one criticism, there were several times that the language seems a little dated with phrases that you might hear an older generation use but are no longer standard. His lack of awareness for current norms might have been fostered by a lack of public speaking. The photographs include a copy of his standard rejection letter that listed 10 items impossible for him to do, including "give lectures, or appear on radio or TV shows, attend cocktail parties, or make trips to Manhattan except under extreme provocation."

One surprising thread to me -- literally from page one through the last two chapters -- is a discussion of his belief in God. In contrast to many of his scientific and magician friends who have distanced themselves from religion, Gardner felt solace in belief in a higher power.

However, as with most of his views, single nouns were not enough to describe his beliefs. On economic and political issues, he claimed to be a "Democratic Socialist." In faith, he thought of himself as a "philosophical theist." And, in philosophy, he was a "theological positivist." I suppose that is not surprising for someone whose life was made of an eclectic mix of interests that led to writing or editing more than 100 books in addition to one of the most popular science columns ever published.

Stephen Hirtle (hirtle@pitt.edu) is a professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.

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