Popularizers II: the amazing Martin Gardner

A few days ago I wrote about Isaac Asimov in his role as a popularizer of math and science. Today I will turn to another important popularizer, Martin Gardner.

But first I return to make a few more remarks about Asimov, to set him in a larger context. Aside from being a popularizer of math and science, he is actually best known as a writer of science fiction. But wait! That too is only a small piece of his oeuvre. As an incredibly prolific author of over 500 books, Asimov is also justly famous for his mysteries and particularly for his non-fiction works that go beyond math and science (especially history, but also more than a bit of linguistics, religion, lit crit, humor, and other areas). Born in Russia in 1919, he died in New York in 1992 of complications from AIDS, which he had contracted from a blood transfusion. The family kept that quiet for years, because of the dominant prejudices of the time.

I was thrilled to have had the chance to chat with Isaac Asimov in 1968 when he was a guest speaker at the Quincy House Science Fiction Society and conversed informally with the members before and after his talk.

Back now to your regularly scheduled program — on to Martin Gardner. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to chat with him. Gardner is well-known to my generation but practically unknown among today’s high-school and college students. Sigh. My admittedly anecdotal evidence about this generational difference comes from quite a few conversations I’ve had with various math teachers and students over the years. As the years went by, I learned that fewer and fewer new math teachers knew him, and none of the students did.

So what was so special about Martin Gardner — for special he was?

I first became exposed to Gardner as the writer of the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American from 1957 to 1981; I was a bit too young for this in 1957, but shortly thereafter I would read the column every month in the library or at school, first where I was attending and then where I was teaching. And I bought many of his books that contained compilations of these columns along with lots of extra follow-up information about each one. A bit like Asimov, who deeply admired him — but by no means identical in skills and interests — Gardner was a prolific polymath. Although I don’t usually like to quote verbatim from Wikipedia, I’ll do so this time:

Martin Gardner (October 21, 1914 – May 22, 2010) was an American popular mathematics popular science writer, with interests also encompassing scientific skepticism, micromagic, philosophy, religion, and literature — especially the writings of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and G. K. Chesterton. He was also a leading authority on Lewis Carroll. The Annotated Alice, which incorporated the text of Carroll’s two Alice books, was his most successful work and sold over a million copies. He had a lifelong interest in magic and illusion and was regarded as one of the most important magicians of the twentieth century. He was considered the doyen of American puzzlers. He was a prolific and versatile author, publishing more than 100 books.

In contrast to Asimov, who earned both a bachelors and a doctorate in chemistry, Gardner majored in philosophy and had no graduate degree. But this “deficiency” apparently made no difference to his enormous contributions to the popularization of mathematics, puzzling, and the various fields mentioned above. Speaking just for myself, I have to observe that many of the topics that he explored, mostly through games and puzzles, had a deep influence on my mathematics teaching. Logic, tessellations, Fibonacci numbers, Pascal’s Triangle, Conway’s Game of Life, polyominoes, Cantor, Zeno, Hofstadter (see my subsequent post on his works), Fermat, cryptography — my first exposure to all of these came from Martin Gardner, and all affected the content and style of my teaching. Go read the aforementioned Wikipedia article; even if you don’t follow it up by reading the linked articles (which you should always do with Wikipedia), you will learn a lot and hopefully gain an appreciation of what made Gardner so special.

Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning