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Renowned Math Popularizer Martin Gardner Has Died

Longtime, acclaimed mathematics and science writer Martin Gardner, who introduced readers to the joys of recreational mathematics and bedeviled cranks and pseudoscientists, died in Norman, Okla., on May 22, 2010. He was 95.

Gardner was perhaps best known as the author of the "Mathematical Games" column for Scientific American, which ran from 1956 to 1981. Gardner, a steadfast debunker of the irrational, helped found the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He wrote more than 70 books and collections of essays on topics ranging from Lewis Carroll and magic tricks to philosophy, religion, and scientific skepticism.

“Martin Gardner is one of the great intellects produced in this country in the 20th century,” said cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, who succeeded Gardner at Scientific American. He noted that Gardner achieved his masterful results by drawing on logic, philosophy, science, and literature. Gardner conveyed “the magical quality of mathematics,” Hofstadter indicated.

In a February 1982 article in The New York Review of Books, Stephen Jay Gould called Gardner “the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surround us.” Other admirers included Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, called Gardner, in his novel Ada, “an invented philosopher.” An asteroid is named for Gardner.

Gardner majored in philosophy at the University of Chicago, from which he graduated in 1936. In 1937 he became assistant editor of The Tulsa Tribune, then returned to the University of Chicago, where he worked in press relations and moonlighted selling magic kits. During World War II, Gardner served on the destroyer escort USS Pope (DE-134). During nights while on duty, he thought up plots for stories, including “The Horse on the Escalator,” which he sold to Esquire magazine.

After a stint as editor of a children’s magazine, Gardner began his long tenure at Scientific American with an article on hexaflexagons. When the publisher suggested he write a column about mathematical games, Gardner jumped at the opportunity.

After he left Scientific American, Gardner authored the column “Notes of a Fringe Watcher,” in Skeptical Inquirer, which he continued to write until 2002.

“I just play all the time,” Gardner said, “and am fortunate enough to get paid for it.”

Gardner’s many books include Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science and his annotated editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. The MAA has reprinted several of Gardner's books, including aha! Gotcha and aha! Insight (in one volume), and collaborated with Cambridge University Press in publishing new, updated editions of the collections of his Scientific American articles.

Most recently, readers had the chance to enjoy Gardner's collection of essays, titled When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish: And Other Speculations About This and That, which lampoons bogus science, crank mathematics, pseudologic, and politics, among other topics.

Source: The Washington Post (May 24, 2010); Scientific American (May 22, 2010); The New York Times(May 23, 2010)

Photo courtesy of Jim Gardner (full size).

Additional Resources:

"Master of Recreational Mathematics — and Much More An Interview with Martin Gardner" by Don Albers (pdf) MAA FOCUS (Nov. 2004)

"Martin Gardner's Generosity" by The Mathematical Tourist (May 23, 2010)

"On the Way to "Mathematical Games": Part I of an Interview with Martin Gardner" by Don Albers The College Mathematics Journal, Vol. 36, No. 3 (May, 2005), pp. 178-190.

'"Mathematical Games" and Beyond: Part II of an Interview with Martin Gardner' by Don Albers The Collegel Mathematics Journal, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Sep., 2005), pp. 301-314.

"A Conversation with Martin Gardner" by Anthony Barcellos The Two-Year College Mathematics Journal, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Sep., 1979), pp. 233-244.

"Martin Gardner: Defending the Honor of the Human Mind" by Irving Joshua Matrix The Two-Year College Mathematics Journal, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Sep., 1979), pp. 233-244.

News Date: 
Monday, May 24, 2010