Wednesday, December 28, 2011

127: Garden Of The Mind

    Ironically, just a week after I mentioned him in this podcast, Martin Gardner passed away at the age of 95.  Anyone familiar with his work would not be surprised that I consider him one of my major influences-- in fact, Math Mutation is very much an attempt to recapture the same sense of fun and whimsy in mathematics that Garder spread for a quarter century in his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. 
    Gardner was born in 1914 in Oklahoma, studied philosophy in college, and eventually settled down in a writing career by the early 1950s.  Initially, he specialized in children's literature:  he was an editor of Humpty Dumpty magazine, and wrote some articles on paper-folding puzzles for children.  This interest led him to explore "hexaflexagons", complex folded-paper structures that had captured the imagination of a small group of elite math and physics students at Princeton, which included a young Richard Feynman.  His article on the topic in Scientific American led to an invitation to publish a monthly column, which ended up lasting 25 years, until he retired from the column in 1981.
    I occasionally wonder if I'm truly qualified to create a podcast like this, not having a Ph.D. in mathematics.  But I feel better about that issue after reading the Gardner never even made it through a college math class, and this didn't stop him from authoring one of the most successful and influential math columns of the 20th century.   His column opened the eyes of a generation of aspriting mathematicians, scientists, and engineers to concepts like the paintings of M.C. Escher, John Conway's cellular automata 'Game of Life', tangrams, planar tilings, and fractals.  He claimed that his lack of formal math education actually made him more effective as a writer, since he knew that by the time he could write about a topic, he had boiled it down to concepts even he could understand.
    And his interests were not limited to mathematics.  He also released an annotated edition of Alice in Wonderland, "The Annotated Alice", where he analyzed issues like the origin of the Cheshire Cat and whether Carroll was realistically describing British weather.  He also dabbled in fiction, writing a sequel to "The Wizard of Oz", and in philosophy, in his book "The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener". 
    But perhaps his most famous non-mathematical achievement is his role in launching the modern skeptical movement, debunking claims of pseudoscience and mysticism, starting back in 1952 with his book "In the Name of Science".  He had a talent for presenting straightforward descriptions of the bizarre ideas he was debunking, and letting the proponents of psedudoscience make themselves look ridiculous.  For example, in "In the Name of Science", he included an essay on Wilhelm Reich's bizarre theory of "Orgone Energy", a newly discovered type of sexual energy that is responsible for turning the sky blue.  Reich's followers angrily accused Gardner of publishing an unfair and libellous article-- until Gardner revealed that before publishing it, he had sent it to Reich himself for approval, without revealing that it was to appear in a book on pseudoscience.  Reich fully approved of the article, aside from some minor corrections, and even complimented Gardner's understanding of his theories.
    Eventually Garder attracted such a following that in 1996 a biannual conference was created, "Gathering for Gardner", for fans to get together and discuss his influence on  their lives.  Nine have been held so far.  The most recent included influential mathematicians John Conway and Stephen Wolfram.  And in the playful spirit of Gardner's columns, each conference includes a debate on the good or evil nature of the conference number.  At this 9th conference, arguments in favor of the number 9 involved its role in the candles on a Jewish menorah, the lives of a cat, and its presence on the jersey of a quarterback in the Super Bowl.  The anti-9 faction brought up the number of circles of Hell, the 9-headed beast guarding Hades, and the recent loss in status of our supposed 9th planet.
    I'd be willing to be that the Gathering for Gardner will continue for decades, and his influence will still be felt for many years to come.
    And this has been your math mutation for today.

  • Martin Gardner at Wikipedia
  • Gardner obituary
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