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Martin has turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children.
October 20, 2009 9:26 AM   Subscribe

A polymath and a mathemagician without a math degree, Martin Gardner turns 95 tomorrow, and he is celebrating by publishing a new book of essays, which joins over 100 he has written on math, philosophy, literature, magic, and skeptical thinking. A wonderful documentary covering the overlapping circles of math, magic, and science in which he travels is available from Encyclopedia Britannica [mp4 version here]. His thousands of puzzles and mathematical diversions included building a learning machine out of matchboxes that could beat you in a simple game, science fiction puzzle tales (can you solve the first couple?), many mathematical tricks, and the first general introduction to the Game of Life. A fascinating interview with the man is available from Cambridge University Press.

Sadly, few of Gardner's books or columns are freely available online, but, given his tremendous output, there are some wonderful things available. Check out the book that influenced Gardner most, the Cyclopedia of Puzzles, which is available in its entirety, as is a wonderful book in tribute to Gardner.

In addition, Gardner's literary output is also impressive. He is the author of the Annotated Alice in Wonderland [link to publisher's excerpts] as well as collections of poems. He also has fascinating works on the philosophy of science.
posted by blahblahblah (46 comments total) 125 users marked this as a favorite

 
Another post that I wish I could favorite about 10 times. Thanks for this!
posted by jquinby at 9:29 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can confirm that Annotated Alice is awesome. Also, I really loved one of his SciAm article compendium books as a kid, although I understood almost none of it. Plus his skeptic work. Dudes a machine.
posted by DU at 9:37 AM on October 20, 2009


There is a Gathering for Gardner convention, one of which produced this fantastic optical illusion, the dragon. Print it out and make your own—it's freaky!
posted by adamrice at 9:37 AM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


In retrospect, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener was one of the most influential books in my life.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:38 AM on October 20, 2009


Eh. If a mathemagician hasn't done his greatest work by age 90, he never will.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:40 AM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Wow, he's still alive? Awesome. I loved his math books and Alice.
posted by octothorpe at 9:45 AM on October 20, 2009


Holy shit, Martin Gardner never had a degree? That's amazing. I'm more familiar with his literary work, particularly the Annotated Alice, but I knew he did both. Really, dude was like a background fixture for me all through my education. Every time I turned around there was something else with his name on it.

Happy birthday, Mr. Gardner!
posted by Caduceus at 9:46 AM on October 20, 2009


I have often thought about writing him and either thanking or cursing him for my interest, piqued when I was about nine, generated by stumbling across one of his columns which mentioned what I now know to be Hinton Cubes, just before the library closed and I lost a chance to explore further, or even write down a decent note. For about twenty years, I had in a little folder a scrap of paper with "Garner - Cubes - 06???" on it, and nothing else to go on. Now I've got the material, but that persistent little itch had his misspelled name on it, all this time.
posted by adipocere at 9:52 AM on October 20, 2009


Excellent. I grew up with Gardner books and columns strewn around the house, thanks to Dad.
posted by everichon at 9:57 AM on October 20, 2009


HE R SMART.
posted by GuyZero at 10:02 AM on October 20, 2009


I got his various SciAm compilations out of the library dozens of time in my childhood. I loved the bits on the Game of Life — there was always one in each volume.
posted by smackfu at 10:16 AM on October 20, 2009


I have a copy of "Aha! Gotcha" that has been getting sunbleached from being left on the porch. I loved the crap out of that book as a kid.
posted by 23skidoo at 10:23 AM on October 20, 2009


Also recommended is his Annotated Hunting of the Snark.

Fun fact from a Gardner science book: If you shrank the Earth to the size of a billiard ball and dried it off, it would be smoother than a billiard ball.
posted by gubo at 10:24 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Martin Gardner is awesome. And props for Annotated Alice, too. That book was one of the many wonderful discoveries I made in the University library, and it was quite the revelation.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:33 AM on October 20, 2009


Happy 4*4!-(4/4)th birthday!
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:34 AM on October 20, 2009 [10 favorites]


skeptical thinking

Note that he believes in God. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:48 AM on October 20, 2009


I loved both his Sci Am columns and his Annotated Alice when I was growing up (and I think it may have taken me a while to realize they were by the same person). Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 10:51 AM on October 20, 2009


Happy 4*4!-(4/4)th birthday!
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:34 AM on October 20 [4 favorites +] [!]


I want so badly to favorite this comment but I'm sure you can see why I cannot.
posted by kcds at 11:06 AM on October 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


Happy 4*4!-(4/4)th birthday!

4*4!-(4/4) = 4*(1*2*3*4) - 1 = 8*12 - 1 = 96 - 1 = 95.

OK, now I get it. Very nice.
posted by DU at 11:08 AM on October 20, 2009


I removed my favorite from DevlisAdvocate's comment to give someone else a chance.
posted by blahblahblah at 11:19 AM on October 20, 2009


I want so badly to favorite this comment but I'm sure you can see why I cannot.

Why? What would be wrong with:

posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4+4+(4/√4):4!+4+4+√4 AM on October (4!-4)(4/4) [√4+√4+(4/4) favorites +] [!]

Whaddya mean that's not how it looks to you?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:20 AM on October 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


HERE IS the "tying a know without letting go" trick that John Conway does at the beginning of the video.
posted by gcbv at 11:44 AM on October 20, 2009


whoah, I meant KNOT. obviously.
posted by gcbv at 11:46 AM on October 20, 2009


His Gotcha! book of paradoxes and brainfucks is one of the most mathematically fun books I own. I had no idea he was still alive. Cheers!
posted by spamguy at 12:19 PM on October 20, 2009


Yay Martin Gardner! His Annotated Alices totally got me into research at a young age. I'm pretty sure I mailed him some choice "finds" (aka fan letters) hoping to be published in later editions.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:26 PM on October 20, 2009


I think history will rate him with Sam Loyd. He's a cultural treasure.
posted by mdoar at 12:35 PM on October 20, 2009


His "The Colossal Book of Mathematics," a collection of some of his best Mathematical Games columns is wonderful. The day Scientific American stopped running Mathematical Games (and its successor math and computer column) was the day I started kind of edging away from it. It still ran great articles for a while, but it wasn't as much fun.

Martin Gardner is nearly the most awesome person alive in the world.
posted by JHarris at 12:36 PM on October 20, 2009


Cambridge University Press is currently publishing The New Martin Gardner Mathematical Library. These volumes were (I believe) originally published in the '60s and '70s; the new editions contain updates on the subjects written by Gardner himself. I've purchased two of the new volumes thus far, and can highly recommend them.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:41 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have often thought about writing him and either thanking or cursing him for my interest, piqued when I was about nine, generated by stumbling across one of his columns which mentioned what I now know to be Hinton Cubes, just before the library closed and I lost a chance to explore further, or even write down a decent note. For about twenty years, I had in a little folder a scrap of paper with "Garner - Cubes - 06???" on it, and nothing else to go on. Now I've got the material, but that persistent little itch had his misspelled name on it, all this time.
posted by adipocere at 5:52 PM on October 20


That column was collected in a book called "Mathematical Carnival."
My own copy of that book is tattered and beaten. I say "is" because I still have this book I found when I was nine. I never forgot that column either, doing research here and there, finding little or nothing. Finally, I went for it and made a mefi post. Later, I searched out and got Hinton's books for myself. Mefi then helped me scan it and make it available to the world.

I can't possibly convey how much Martin Gardner meant to me growing up. It is no exaggeration to say that he, by himself, is the difference between who I could have been and who I am. The former, much more impoverished. One of the few people alive, that if I met, I'd like nothing more than to give them an appreciative hug.
posted by vacapinta at 12:53 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


I spent hours lost in his books. Here's an FPP on his Matchbox Computing concept I posted a while back.
posted by The Deej at 12:55 PM on October 20, 2009


Ha! I have you all beat -- he came to my home once, back when I was in high school. A classmate interviewed him, and I got to sit and listen to a top notch mind playing with ideas.

Now, who wants to touch me?
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 1:48 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Now, who wants to touch me?

Not while you're soaked in urine.
posted by The Deej at 2:01 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


I seem to vaguely remember him occasionally contributing to Games magazine. I remember wondering if his name was a play on "Marvin Gardens," what with it being GAMES magazine, and all.

Come on. I was like 9.

Glad to know he's still kicking.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:47 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


In the first article in the tribute book linked above, Gardner is quoted as saying that (before he took it up) the only puzzle collector he'd ever heard of was fictitious, a detective character "in a series of short stories that ran many years ago in one of the popular mystery magazines." The citation says he said it in 1934 in Hobbies magazine.

Anyone know who the character is?
posted by Zed at 2:55 PM on October 20, 2009


DAMN it, that Google Books link has all of the puzzles, and none of the answers! I must know how three surgeons can operate with only two pairs of gloves!

Someone smarter than me please tell me.
posted by cereselle at 3:35 PM on October 20, 2009


The first surgeon wears both pairs of gloves, with pair A inside pair B. The second surgeon wears pair B. The third surgeon turns pair A inside out before wearing them.
posted by The Deej at 3:39 PM on October 20, 2009


(Guess that proves I'm smarter than you.)
posted by The Deej at 3:40 PM on October 20, 2009


The first surgeon wears both pairs of gloves, with pair A inside pair B. The second surgeon wears pair B. The third surgeon turns pair A inside out before wearing them.

...and wears pair B over the inside-out pair A. The key is to note that there are four people involved, and four pairs of glove-sides.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:44 PM on October 20, 2009


Holy shit, Martin Gardner never had a degree? That's amazing. ...

I think he has a degree, just not in math. The NYT article says "he majored in philosophy at the University of Chicago".
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:15 PM on October 20, 2009


Well happy birthday to Martin and thanks for the post blah!

I was another youngster who loved his Scientific American columns and struggled to understand them. Later I started getting his books at the library sales hoping i'd be able to figure them out. Just the drawings are amazing.

This was back when Scientific American was still the grey lady of science writing. I wonder what Gardner thinks of the magazine today.... sad.

One early book I also loved of his was "Fads and Fallacies in the name of Science", the first book on crackpots and skepticism i ever read. I still have it. Been a skeptic ever since.
posted by storybored at 8:06 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mathematical Games was where I, and most people, probably, first discovered Conway's Game of Life. Martin Gardner may also have been the first major dissemination point for knowledge of fractals outside the academic math community.

Going through the book I mentioned upthread, there is:

A description of a drill that can drill square holes. Chapter 4, "Curves of Constant Width."

A kind of ovoid solid, a "superegg," that is stable when placed on its end. Chapter 6, "Piet Hein's Superellipse."

A set of specially-numbered dice that, when laid out in sequence, each of them "beats" the one before it on the average in roll contests... but the one on the end beats the first one! None of the dice is "best," they all beat the previous one in circular order. Chapter 22, "Nontransitive Dice and Other Paradoxes."

A good number of printed messages that read the same when turned upside-down, or rotated. Chapter 16, "The Amazing Creations of Scott Kim."

Life is covered in Chapter 31.
posted by JHarris at 2:00 AM on October 21, 2009


and wears pair B over the inside-out pair A

Doesn't the third surgeon need to turn pair B inside out, as well? That way the clean side of B is outside, while the dirty side of B is touching the dirty side of A.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:09 AM on October 21, 2009


No--there is no "clean" side of B at that point. The insides of B were already touching the hands of surgeon #2. However, the outsides of B, while not guaranteed to be clean, have only touched the patient thus far; they're uncontaminated if the patient was not already infected.

Surgeon #1 touches only the insides of A. Surgeon #2 touches only the insides of B. Surgeon #3 touches only the "outsides" (the insides once they're turned inside-out) of A. The patient touches only the outsides of B; he touches them three different times, but that's OK.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:58 AM on October 21, 2009


doh....
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:43 PM on October 21, 2009


The New York Times joins in the celebration with this story.
posted by storybored at 5:50 PM on October 21, 2009


Was there a quick way to do number 2?

I solved 0.5n(n+1)=100 and 0.5n(n+1)=200 as n=13.65 and n=19.5 respectively. This narrows down the number of balls down to one of 105, 120, 136, 153, 171 and 190. From there it just seemed easiest to use trial and error to find a value of m in which (m(m+1)(m+2))/6 equals one of those six possibilities. In this case, m=8, leaving the answer to the question as 120.

I just wonder, was there a cleverer way of doing it?
posted by salmacis at 12:14 AM on October 22, 2009


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