Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Happy birthday, Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner is 95, and the New York Times has a great article about the man and his new book.

For those who don't know the name, Gardner wrote the column "Mathematical Games" in Scientific American for a quarter of a century. The following quote from the NYT article summarises the impact of those columns perfectly: "Martin has turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children."

I am not a mathematician, but perhaps close enough to be counted. I first read him as a child -- it was my mother's yellowing copy of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, a collection of Scientific American columns that began with the "Hexaflexagons" column mentioned in the NYT article above -- and was hooked. I collected several more of those volumes over the years.

Almost equally delightful has been his debunking, over the years, of various forms of pseudoscience. I say "almost" because I think he sometimes went a bit overboard, to the detriment of his argument. But perhaps I will leave that to another blog post.

And then there are gems like "The Annotated Alice" and "The Annotated Snark", which will teach you more about the hidden layers in the Lewis Carroll books than you ever believed existed...


Rahul Basu said...

I used to have a subscription to Scientific American in the 70s, courtesy of a friend of our family in the US. I remember Martin Gardner's column was one of the first I would turn to with each new issue. And I still remember one particular division puzzle where the quotient was 80809 and you had to find both the divident and the divisor. (You were given the number of long division steps but no numbers). I recall solving it after much effort and my joy knew no bounds.

His other fascinating column was on Sam Loyd's puzzles, Sam Loyd being apparently a 19th century mathematical dilettante. I was never quite sure whether he was a real figure or whether Gardner just made him up! BTW Gardner also had a fascinating card game which I have played, called Eleusis.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

In fact I remember all your examples from the Penguin-series collections (which included "addenda" based on reader feedback). I think Sam Loyd was real (Wikipedia has an entry): Gardner published a couple of collections of his puzzles, and while he used several pseudonyms I don't think he used that one. He also wrote about Henry Ernest Dudeney, an English puzzlist and contemporary of Loyd.