Martin Gardner

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From Colins Blog, and one of the Random Writings.

2010/05/22 Martin Gardner

With a slightly mischevious smile on his face he trotted over to a drawer and brought back two pieces of wire that were intertwined. Slowly moving his hands apart, the wires separated. Only they didn't, it was an illusion you could hold in your hands. "You can keep that one" he said. "I've got another one."

And he grinned.

Although I was a complete stranger to Martin Gardner, he was no stranger to me. At least, his writings weren't. I grew up consuming his writings, trying out the tricks on unsuspecting and long suffering friends and family, internalising the techniques and methods, and getting very excited about worlds and ideas being opened up before me. This was the 70's, before the World Wide Web, before the internet, and when explanations were in encyclopaedias and expensive books. In that world Martin Gardner wrote the "Mathematical Recreations" column for the Scientific American. Although not a mathematician, perhaps because of it, his explanations of complex ideas were clear, light and practical, even when the ideas themselves were nigh on impossible to visualise. Somehow he could communicate his own interest and enthusiasm clearly through the written word with accompanying diagrams.

And I'm not the only one to have been excited by Martin's writings. Ron Graham once said: "Martin has turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children." The sense of playfulness underlying serious investigations is something Martin communicated, and by demonstrating the playfulness he made doing maths fun. Maths is hard, and he never tried to hide that there was often a lot of work to be done, but the joy to be found was made clear, manifest.

How many thousands of mathematicians have been found, created, inspired and enthused by Martin is a subject for speculation, but it's a lot. At the Gathering For Gardner (G4G) every two years there are hundreds, and they're just the ones on the invitation list. There are many, many more.

It was through G4G that I finally got to meet the man who had a profound and pervasive effect on my life. At the first Gathering people brought presents for Martin, so at the next Gathering people were told, yes, you can bring presents, but only if you bring enough for everyone. So people did, and in 2010 people turned up with or pre-shipped 350 copies of their presents. These were then redistributed, and we all came away with a goodie bag.

But I had two, the second one for Martin. Complexities of scheduling meant it took three flights to get to Oklahoma City, and five flights with three different airlines to get back home afterwards. But it was worth it. That afternoon with Martin was one of the highlights of my life. To see him still active, still working, was exciting in itself. The fact that his abilities seemed undiminished was wonderful, and I was looking forward to seeing his work over the years. Cambridge, for example, is planning to bring out a series, and Martin is editing them, planning to spend a year or two on each volume. When asked how many there would be it was hard to be sure, but I think he said "thirteen."

He hasn't completed them. Still, his work continues to inspire. Its lucidity, clarity, breadth and sheer fun is unmatched by current authors, though many may try. He will remain my inspiration for the rest of my life, as he has been for most of it so far.

I met Martin Gardner for the first and only time when I was about 48 1/2. He was about 95 1/2. If those figures were exact, how many years ago was I exactly half his age?

Easily solved by plodding through the required algebra, but that would not be appropriate. Instead, observe that the difference in our ages was 47. Thus when I was 47, he was 47+47, the factor of 2 we wanted. Thus it was 1 1/2 years earlier.

Here is the obituary I wrote for the London Mathematical Society:
Martin Gardner

It is with considerable regret that we report the death after a short illness of Martin Gardner on May 22nd, aged 95. He was well known to many mathematicians around the world, many of whom cite him as an early influence in their interest in mathematics.

Primarily a journalist and freelance author, Gardner wrote over 70 books, ranging from "The Annotated Alice" (1960) to some of the earliest books in the "Sceptic Movement," including "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science" (1952).

Born in 1914, Martin earned a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy from the University of Chicago, having also studied history, literature and the sciences. This served him well when he joined the Tulsa Tribune as a journalist in 1937, a position where he no doubt honed his writing skills. A period in the US Naval Reserve further provided an opportunity on long watches to invent plots for stories, which he subsequently sold.

To mathematicians, however, he will remain best known for his 25 year stint writing the "Mathematical Games" column for Scientific American magazine. His first article was on hexaflexagons, and subsequent columns ranged through topics as diverse as topology, fractals, aperiodic tilings, Conway's "Life", and the work of MC Escher. Many of his books build on the work first published there.

Ron Graham once said: "Martin has turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children."

He is survived by his two sons, three grandchildren, and a generation of recreational mathematics enthusiasts.

There have already been several heart-warming tributes and articles, and many more will certainly be written, many by people who knew Martin far, far better than I did.

This list won't be comprehensive, but here are a few:



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