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"Mathematics, Magic & Mystery"—and the Man Who Brought Them Together

Colm Mulcahy Kicks Off MAM 2014

On April 1, to kick off Mathematics Awareness Month (MAM) 2014, MAA columnist Colm Mulcahy (Spelman College, currently visiting American University) told a packed MAA Carriage House about the man he is fond of calling “the best friend mathematics ever had.”

The theme of this year’s MAM is “Mathematics, Magic, and Mystery,” which is also the title of a book by longtime Scientific American columnist and eminent mathematics popularizer Martin Gardner (1914-2010).

Mulcahy gave the audience a sneak preview of a few videos to be featured later in April on the online “advent calendar for people who believe in mathematics,” and then paid whirlwind tribute to the man who inspired MAM’s glorious assemblage of mathemagical mysteries.

Gardner regarded puzzles and games and paradoxes—what he called “things that dull teachers tend to avoid because they seem frivolous”—as ways to engage and motivate, Mulcahy said.

Gardner published non-fiction articles for Scripta Mathematica and a short story with a topological twist, but he is most well-known for the 300-odd “Mathematical Games” columns he wrote for Scientific American. Through these Gardner introduced generations of readers to tangrams and polyominoes, M. C. Escher and the four-color map problem. RSA cryptography, even.

“He got in trouble for going public on that in the late 70s,” Mulcahy noted.

Before exploring some non-mathematical aspects of Gardner’s character and interests, Mulcahy used quotes from Ron Graham and Donald Knuth to underscore Gardner’s influence and the debt owed to him by the mathematical community.

“More people have probably learned more good mathematical ideas from Gardner than from any other person in the history of the world,” said Knuth.

Of course, as anyone who has attended (or heard about) the biennial Gatherings 4 Gardner can testify, Gardner was involved in and left his mark on much more than mathematics.

Gardner is considered the father of the skeptical movement, Mulcahy said, and his annotation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland sold more than a million copies.

Gardner never lost his sense of wonder, Mulcahy emphasized. The first time the two men met Gardner told Mulcahy that since childhood he had been baffled and fascinated that the moon and the sun appear to be the same size. “He just thought that was an amazing universal coincidence, as a seven-year-old and as a 92-year-old,” Mulcahy recalled.  

Keen to give listeners a balanced representation of his subject’s views, Mulcahy noted that Gardner was not an atheist and quoted him acknowledging the possibility of a divine creator.

To Martin the magician, Mulcahy owes inspiration for many an installment of his MAA column Card Colm. So much so that he interprets the final word of the Martin Gardner book title Martin Gardner Presents as a noun rather than a verb.

“Every time I’m stuck for an idea for a card column,” Mulcahy said, “here’s my secret. I open that book up and I read through like 10 pages and I go, ‘Aha! Thanks Martin.’”

So revered by so many, another man might have let the admiration go to his head. But not Gardner. He regarded himself more as an aggregator and expositor than as a mathematician or magician. Even though he published award-winning papers in MAA journals late in his life, Gardner never took a math class after high school and credited his Scientific American success to his relative ignorance.

“I had to struggle to get everything clear before I wrote a column, so that meant I could write it in a way that people could understand,” Gardner explained.

With what would have been Gardner’s 100th birthday coming up in October, Mulcahy’s talk and the Gardner-inspired Mathematics Awareness Month mark but the beginning of the upcoming Gardner remembrances. A ceremonial unveiling before Mulcahy’s lecture revealed an installation of eight bricks honoring Gardner in the MAA’s Paul R. Halmos Commemorative Walk, and Mulcahy introduced his Carriage House listeners to a newly launched website dedicated to celebrating the man in all his many facets on the occasion of his centennial. For frequent doses of Gardner-esque fun, Mulcahy recommended following the Twitter handles @WWMGT (What Would Martin Gardner Tweet?) and @MGardner100th.

But perhaps you’re hankering for a lengthier communion with the late great? Snuggle up with a copy of Martin Gardner’s recently published autobiography Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, said Mulcahy.  

“It’s like talking to him for a whole weekend.”—Katharine Merow

Slides and audio (mp3) of Mulcahy's lecture