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Martin Gardner: In His Own Words

When MAA hosted its fifth annual Celebration of Mind on October 14, the late Martin Gardner was there in the Carriage House in more than just spirit.

Held across the globe each October since Gardner’s 2010 death, Celebration of Mind events typically use puzzles, games, and magic to delight, instruct, and bring people together. By continuing the work Gardner began with his Scientific American columns and dozens of books, enthusiasts honor the legacy of a man who prefered to avoid the spotlight.

“Martin Gardner: In His Own Words,” however, put Gardner himself front and center. The event’s 50+ attendees enjoyed newly unearthed footage of a 1994 interview conducted by Bob Fennell (Clemson University) in Gardner’s Hendersonville, North Carolina, home. Fennell had traveled to Hendersonville to present Gardner with the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics Communications Award.

The interview footage—40 minutes, all told—resided, until recently, only on a pair of video cassettes formatted for broadcast television and labeled “MG1” and “MG2.” Outgoing MAA Director of Publications Ivars Peterson found these in a cupboard on the fourth floor of MAA headquarters and arranged for the material to be transferred to DVD and edited down to the 14-minute film premiered at the Celebration of Mind.

The film, in which Gardner recalls being chastised for playing tic-tac-toe in geometry class, demonstrates the deceptive realism of a severed hand gag, and expresses his belief that two dinosaurs joined by another two dinosaurs makes a total of four dinosaurs independent of human observation, is available now on MAA’s YouTube channel.

Peterson’s portion of the evening’s presentation also included an overview of Gardner’s MAA connections (laid out in detail in the cover story of the October/November issue of MAA FOCUS) and 15 minutes of interview outtakes.

Then Gardner bibliographer (and George Mason University professor) Dana Richards took the stage to debunk what he called the “missed math myth” regarding Gardner’s background.

As Gardner tells it—in the JPBM interview and elsewhere—he scarcely read, thought, or wrote about mathematics until his 1956 piece about hexaflexagons prompted Scientific American’s publisher Gerald Peale to engage him to write what would become his famous “Mathematical Games” column. Not so, Richards told the Carriage House audience. Gardner audited an analysis class while studying philosophy at the University of Chicago, Richards said, and wrote a series of articles in the late 1940s for Scripta Mathematica on mathematical magic tricks.

“It’s not something he came to late in life,” said Richards, not to detract from Gardner’s accomplishments but to set the record straight.

Gardner, who lived to see his 95th birthday, would have been 100 on October 21, and Colm Mulcahy (Spelman College) summed up MAA’s Celebration of Mind by surveying the efforts underway to boost awareness of Gardner’s work in this his centennial year. Mulcahy chairs the Martin Gardner Centennial Committee, which also counts Dana Richards and Bill Ritchie among its members. ThinkFun co-founder Ritchie attended the MAA Celebration of Mind and contributed the Daily Puzzle to the gift bags distributed to attendees after the event.

There’s, what Mulcahy called “your one-stop shop for all you need to know about Gardner’s writings.” Two Twitter accounts give fans their Gardner fix in 140-character chunks: @WWMGT (What Would Martin Gardner Tweet) offers excerpts from Gardner’s memoirs and puzzles of the sort he would have relished, while @MGardner100th broadcasts those sentiments Martin himself might have been too modest to publicize.

Host your own Celebration of Mind, Mulcahy encouraged listeners, this October and every October hence. Excited, certainly, at the prospect of all these future gatherings, Mulcahy also noted the uniqueness of the event in progress.

“Here we have a Celebration of Mind with Martin here—almost,” he said. “It’s incredible to see him back talking as if you were just sitting around chatting with him.”Katharine Merow