24 May 2010

Feeling Grateful for Martin Gardner

I was sorry to read yesterday of the death of Martin Gardner, longtime columnist for Scientific American and, somewhat surprisingly, one of my favorite childhood authors.

I may have first come across Gardner’s name as coauthor of The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was, which Michael Patrick Hearn built on to create The Annotated Wizard of Oz. Gardner also wrote introductions to most of Dover’s 1970s reprints of L. Frank Baum’s non-Oz fantasies, and I was abundantly pleased to follow in his footsteps in introducing a centenary edition of John Dough and the Cherub a few years back.

But Martin Gardner stimulated my growing brain even more outside the Nonestic world. My parents had a copy of The Annotated Alice, and I read and reread that book many times—eventually only the annotations. Gardner later assembled another volume of Alice annotations and a short Annotated Hunting of the Snark, though the original contained his best material. I ended up writing my undergraduate thesis on Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark.

Another book I reread several times was Gardner’s The Incredible Dr. Matrix, collecting his columns about a fictional numerologist and con man. Like the Wizard, Dr. Irving Joshua Matrix is a charming humbug—but in his tales there’s always the whiff of money changing hands. The essays in that volume and some later additions are now in The Magic Numbers of Dr. Matrix.

Gardner’s books showed me how stories, even children’s adventures, could be read at many different levels, some possibly intended by the author and others just for fun. They showed that storytelling and mathematics didn’t have to be separate disciplines, though I must admit I didn’t even try most of the puzzles. Gardner’s amused take on Dr. Matrix fed my interest in con men and how people delude themselves.

One of my most important lessons from Gardner was skepticism. In 1974, he wrote a Dr. Matrix column about “pyramid power,” parodying ideas that had circulated in France for some decades. Soon American authors published books titled Pyramid Power, trumpeting how this marvelous discovery had been discussed in Scientific American! In The Incredible Dr. Matrix Gardner laid out that sequence of events for me, thoroughly amused by the folly.

1 comment:

nyrdyv said...

Gardner's work played a large influence on my choosing to major in math in college.


Steven G. Willis