Martin Gardner created the long-running Mathematical Games column for Scientific American and became the twentieth century’s greatest popularizer of mathematics.
A passionate enemy of pseudoscience, he was a prime mover in founding the skeptic movement and authored over 70 books on subjects as diverse as mathematics, pseudoscience, philosophy, magic tricks, and Lewis Carroll.
Martin Gardner was born into a prosperous family on October 21, 1914 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA.
His mother was Willie Wilkerson Spiers, a Montessori-trained kindergarten teacher who gave up work to look after her children. His father was James Henry Gardner, an eminent petroleum geologist who became President of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Martin was the eldest of their three children. His parents were Methodists (his mother was very religious) and raised their children in their faith.
His mother taught Martin to read before he started school. He learned as she read his favorite story to him – The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. As an adult Martin helped found the International Wizard of Oz Club.
Martin enjoyed science fiction stories by writers such as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and he subscribed to the pulp magazine Amazing Stories.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories were also great favorites.
Religion and Physics → PhilosophyAt Tulsa Central High School, the only subjects Martin enjoyed were Mathematics and Physics – in general, he hated high school. His hobbies were chess and magic tricks, the beginning of a lifelong interest in conjuring.
In his first year of high school Martin read Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, prompting him to become an atheist. By his final year, he had swung to evangelical Protestantism.
Although he went to college with the intention of becoming a physicist, at the University of Chicago he became preoccupied with philosophical ideas. In 1936, age 21, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy.
Martin Gardner graduated in the middle of the 1930s economic depression, when the unemployment rate ranged from 15-20 percent. He worked several jobs before serving four years in the Navy during World War 2.
After the war, in 1945, Gardner studied graduate level Philosophy of Science courses at the University of Chicago, supporting himself writing fiction stories and selling them to Esquire magazine.
In 1947, he moved to New York City to become a freelance writer, earning most of his income from material he wrote for Humpty Dumpty, a children’s magazine.
Emperor of Recreational Mathematics
In the Beginning – The Flexagon
The story of Martin Gardner’s rise to mathematical fame began in 1939 at Princeton University, with the arrival of mathematician Arthur Stone from the UK. Stone found the writing paper sold in America was an inch wider than his British folders, so after trimming the paper to size, he ended up with dozens of 1-inch wide paper strips.
Stone played with the strips, folding them to form a hexagon. Continuing to play, he realized his hexagon had interesting 3D properties. He used tape to hold the shape together and created the flexagon.
In the video below, Martin Gardner demonstrates how a flexagon can be manipulated to reveal three different faces.
Stone then came up with a more elaborate creation that could cycle through six faces, three of which appeared more often than the others. This was the hexaflexagon, whose mathematical properties were far from trivial. Stone showed his creation to his Princeton colleagues.
Soon he was joined in a mathematical investigation by Bryant Tuckerman, a fellow mathematician; John Tukey, who became one of the world’s most eminent statisticians; and Richard Feynman, who needs no introduction. Eventually they produced a hexaflexagon capable of revealing 48 faces.
Hexaflexagons remained relatively obscure until Gardner heard about them in 1956. He asked a Scientific American editor if the magazine would like an article about them. The answer was yes. Gardner met Tuckerman & Tukey, wrote the article, and so launched his career in recreational mathematics.
His hexaflexagons article appeared in December 1956, beginning a craze for the shapes. Gardner, who was 42 years old, joined the staff of Scientific American, working from home. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a Mathematical Games column for the magazine. He retired in 1980, age 65. In retirement, he continued writing mathematical games articles freelance.
Gardner was not a mathematician – he took no courses beyond high school, but he could explain subtle mathematical concepts elegantly, quickly, and entertainingly. He spurred huge numbers of people who did not consider themselves skilled at mathematics to become interested in it.
His column became Scientific American’s most popular feature, inspiring significant numbers of people from the late 1950s into the 1980s to become mathematicians.
Gardner introduced his readers to new mathematical material, making it famous, including the Three Prisoners problem, the artwork of M. C. Escher, Conway’s Game of Life, the Unexpected Hanging paradox, and Penrose Tiles.
Gardner’s favorite mathematics field was topology.
Gardener’s classic 1952, revised in 1957, book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science is subtitled: The curious theories of modern pseudoscientists and the strange, amusing and alarming cults that surround them. It was one of the founding works of the skeptic movement.
Gardener describes the ways a typical pseudoscientist thinks and speaks, including observations such as:
- Everyone is out of step except himself.
- He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. He likens himself to Bruno, Galileo, Copernicus, Pasteur, and other great men who were unjustly persecuted for their heresies.
- If he has had no formal training in the field in which he works, he will attribute this persecution to a scientific masonry.
Gardner tears holes in a wide range of junk theories such as those of:
Alfred William Lawson (1869 – 1954), Supreme Head and First Knowlegian of the University of Lawsonomy, Des Moines, Iowa, who wrote:
“The basic principles of physics were unknown until established by Lawson.”
Lawson predicted his principles would be mainstream by the year 2000. He also began to believe he was a Holy Prophet, planning a thousand Lawsonian Churches in Midwestern cities.
Bernarr Macfadden (1868 – 1955), a promoter of naturopathy who believed cancer could be cured by eating nothing but grapes. In his five-volume Encyclopedia of Physical Culture published in 1912 Macfadden wrote:
“It positively must be remembered that the methods recommended in this work cannot be combined with the internal use of drugs or medicine. An attempt to use drugs while pursuing the treatments here advocated may lead to very serious results, and is to be depended upon under no circumstances.”
Gardner also tore holes in ideas that persist today, such as dowsing, flying saucers, chiropractic theory, dianetics (Scientology), and parapsychology.
He helped found the magazine Skeptical Inquirer in 1976. The magazine cites him as the “Founder of the Modern Skeptical Movement.”
Philosophy of Mathematics
Gardener was a Platonist or realist. Stated very briefly, he believed:
- Even if there were no humans, numbers and mathematics would exist.
- Mathematical proofs are universally true: they exist, and are discovered rather than created by humans.
In this he agreed with the Pythagoreans and Platonists from Ancient Greece.
Pythagoreans believed that everything could be reduced to numbers and the whole universe had been built using mathematics. They said the truth behind the everyday reality we experience lies in numbers.
Gardener opposed the views of social constructionists, who believe:
- Numbers exist as adjectives, not nouns. The concept of, for example, the number 2 as a noun is a human construction, not a universal truth. On the other hand, 2 used as an adjective to describe the number of eyes a typical cat has does exist.
- Mathematical proofs exist only as a result of human endeavors – they are constructed by humans: they are not universal truths existing independently of humans.
Unlike many of his fellow skeptics, Gardner was not an atheist. He believed in God as a supreme being and he believed in an afterlife. He prayed to God on themes of thanks and forgiveness.
He did not follow the teachings of any particular religion and he was suspicious of organized religion.
Scientists with similar beliefs, described as Philosophical theism, include Isaac Newton (who believed in God, but not in Jesus as God’s son), Carl Friedrich Gauss (who believed in “the immortality of the spiritual individuality, in a personal permanence after death, in a last order of things, in an eternal, righteous, omniscient and omnipotent God”), and Alfred Russel Wallace.
Gardner believed that religious faith – based on emotion – and activities such as science – based on evidence and reason – are independent of one another.
Family and The End
In 1952, age 38, Gardner married Charlotte Greenwald. They had two sons, James and Thomas.
Gardner’s wife Charlotte died in 2000, after 48 years of marriage.
Following Charlotte’s death, Gardner moved to an assisted living facility in Norman, Oklahoma to be closer to his son James, a professor at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Education.
Martin Gardner died age 95 on May 22, 2010 in Norman. His body was cremated. He continued writing to the end, and was survived by his sons and grandchildren.
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Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner
Princeton University Press, 30 Sep 2013
Martin Gardner 1914–2010: Founder of the Modern Skeptical Movement
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Top image of Gardner courtesy of Konrad Jacobs and Famous Scientists under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany license.