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Martin Gardner (1914 – 2010)

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I’m sorry to report that Martin Gardner died on May 22, 2010. Scientific American is running some nice web pages about him. Be sure to check the links at the bottom of the Scientific American page, they have are four different pages to look at. And check the New York Times obit as well.

I’ll do a bit of a Martin celebration here as well. First of all I’m posting the text of an article, “Martin Gardner: Impresario of Mathematial Games,” that I wrote for a magazine called Science 81 in 1981.

Secondly, I wrote up a short note on Martin for a Milestone piece in next week’s Time magazine—my note just appeared online, and it will be in the print edition as well.

And thirdly, here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, Nested Scrolls. This passage describes the trip that I took to North Carolina to interview Martin.

The beloved popular mathematics writer Martin Gardner had just retired from his post at Scientific American. I’d worshipped Martin’s columns as a boy, and over the years I’d corresponded with him a little bit—he was great about answering his fan letters. So in the summer of 1981 I got Science 81 to send me to interview him at his house in North Carolina.

This was the first truly journalistic outing of mine, and I enjoyed it a lot. Martin was a kindly old guy, very sharp, and a wizard at sleight of hand. He showed me a trick where he made a coin move right through a sheet of latex rubber that he stretched tight over a shot-glass. He claimed he’d made the coin move through the fourth dimension.

“Please tell me the secret!” I cried. “I’ll give you half the money I’m being paid for this interview!” I’ve always been a sucker for the fourth dimension.

Martin waved off my foolish offer. Not only did he show me how to work the trick, but he gave the requisite supplies so that I could mystify my family and friends. They appreciated the trick, not that any of them ever offered to pay me for the secret!

Rather than using a tape recorder, I just jotted down notes on Martin’s answers to my questions, and that was enough to help me later on when I had to write out the full answers on my typewriter. I have a very good memory.

Something that impressed me about Martin was that he’d been a freelance writer his whole life. He’d even sold some mathematics-based science-fiction stories when he’d been starting out. Up near the ceiling of his basement office, he had a very long bookshelf with all the books he’d published, each title in numerous editions and translations. I dreamed that someday my books could fill a shelf like that.

Before dinner Martin made martinis for his wife, himself and me, using a special glass eyedropper to measure out the vermouth. I went to motel and smoked a joint, then met Martin and his wife at a local restaurant for dinner. At the table, I excitedly rattled on about infinite dimensional space and parallel worlds. Martin and his wife gave each other a look. They knew exactly where I was at.

The next morning, before I left, Martin lent me a box of rare books on the fourth dimension. And eventually he even wrote a preface for my book, The Fourth Dimension, even though he had a philosophical disagreement with my mystical notion of an overarching One Mind. Martin was a pluralist, believing that there are many higher forces at work, rather than just one. He loved pondering arcane metaphysics, indeed he wrote a little-known novel about theology called The Flight of Peter Fromm. A fascinating and warm-hearted man.

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3 Responses to “Martin Gardner (1914 – 2010)”

  1. linus r. Says:

    I rememeber Gardners book the Ambidextrous Universe and profound fantasys about the spriit medium HenrySlade…. and Relativity for the Million and the Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener…. sad to see him gone…. (another really cool posting here btw)….

  2. Peter Renz Says:

    Rudy, How nice it is to read your reminiscences of visiting Martin Gardner. So many of us thought about visiting him, but few of us did. He was generous to all of us, whether we just read his books and columns, or whether we wrote to him, or whether we seized the day and visited. I spoke to him in the week before he died and he had man interesting projects going. Let’s do our best to carry on in the same style. Nice tribute. Thanks. Peter

  3. Xah Lee Says:

    Hi Rudy. I discovered your blog about Martin. Thanks a lot for your writings. Martin means a lot to me personally too, like so many other people. I also wrote a bit about my memory of him here: http://xahlee.org/math/Martin_Gardner.html


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