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.
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:
Links on this page