Martin Gardner has died


Though most in the community that reads PT have undoubtedly already heard, I’ll repeat here that Martin Gardner, a central figure in recreational mathematics, skepticism, and the testing of claims of the paranormal, died at age 95 on May 22, 2010, in Norman, Oklahoma, where his son Jim is on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma.

I had the great pleasure of meeting him once at his son’s graduation from the college where I taught. He was a gracious and gentle man, and he suffered hero worship with nearly invisible discomfort. One of the highlights of my career was to achieve passing mention in one of his Scientific American columns for a statistical note I sent him on the misuse of p-values as indices of effect size in psi “research.”

Jim Lippard has links to memorial tributes by Richard Dawkins, Douglas Hofstadter, James Randi, Wendy Grossman, and Phil Plait, and also has a link to a documentary on Gardner from December 2008. I recommend it highly. It captures the man well. Would that we all could live as full and fruitful a life as he did.


That is truly sad. He was a very brilliant mind; quick, inventive, and profound. I read his mathematical columns with great pleasure, and though I had some points of disagreement with his Skeptico articles, they were soundly reasoned and stimulated thought. We have too few minds such as his engaged in discourse around the contentious issues: evolution/creationism, global warming, and the idiocy of intelligent design.

In 1979 I was privileged to participate in an interview of Martin Gardner on his eve of his departure from the “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American. I transcribed the entire interview and then boiled it down to a fraction of its length to fit the space allocated for it in The Two-Year College Math Journal. This afternoon I dug out the original typescript of the whole thing, scanned it, and posted it, warts and all. It brought back a lot of pleasant memories of getting acquainted with Martin, both the man and the writer.

An Interview with Martin Gardner

Many thanks for that, Barcellos. The six parties in that conference call were a pretty zippy group of people! Stan Ulam as a supernumerary? Wow!

All this inspired me to take out my copy of the 1957 edition of Gardner’s FADS AND FALLACIES (In the Name of Science). In the chapter “Geology versus Genesis,” he takes a good-humored look at “Creation Geologist” George McCready Price as a kind of living relic of a past age, even admirable in a doomed and futile sort of way, a last lonely hold-out of a lost cause.

Unfortunately, Gardner lived long enough to see that Price wasn’t the last of a dying breed but more like the first of a new generation of crackpots. I just wonder if Gardner would have been quite so good-humored in that chapter if he had known that far from dying, Creationism was about to metastasize…

Also the author of one of the seminal works in the world of magic. Magicians all over the world are also mourning his passing.

Just another hero gone. I treasure his mathematical games columns from Sci. Am., and I still use his reworked SP Thomson’s Calculus book.

He was a good man. These words comfort me when friends pass away:

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”


Mark Twain

Walabio said:

He was a good man. These words comfort me when friends pass away:

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”


Mark Twain

I knew almost nothing of him, but the Twain quote reminds me that a fitting tribute to him and all the heroes in science and math would be to use phrases like “billions of years” (or “millions” where applicable) at every opportunity.

None of that will change the minds of the ~1/3 of adult Americans who are hopelessly addicted to a young-earth (+ another ~10% old-earth-young-life). But it will keep them out of the comfort zone provided by the current trend of of “don’t ask, don’t tell what the designer did, when or how.” And it might generate some interest from those who accept evolution but are fuzzy on the details.

Martin Gardner was one of my heroes when I was in high school in the late 1950s. I got first dibs on the school library’s copy of Scientific American every month for the Mathematical Games section (and the Amateur Scientist section). I made hexaflexagons (and duodecaflexagons) for years afterwards. (Anybody remember how to make them…?)

Check out the 6/5 edition of NPR’s Car Talk. Tom & Ray have a humorous tribute to Gardner.

Like most others here, I always enjoyed Martin’s columns in Scientific American. But my favorite work of his is my dog eared copy of “The Annotated Alice”. It is an incredibly detailed and well researched work in which Mr. Gardner, with his characteristically energetic style, opens up the remarkable genius of the “Alice” books.

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This page contains a single entry by Richard B. Hoppe published on May 23, 2010 11:42 PM.

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