The Quantum Pontiff

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner has passed away at age 95. I fondly remember going back through the back issues of “Scientific American” as a kid and devouring Gardner’s “Mathematical Recreations” column (along with the similar columns written by Hofstadter and Dewdney.) If I have any mathematical skills, I probably owe a large chunk of them to some of Gardner’s puzzles. Indeed, in my mind, Scientific American went from a pretty good first rate science magazine, to something less than stellar, when they ended these regular columns along with their “Amateur Scientist” column. (And don’t get me started on the “Skeptic” column in the Scientific American, which yes, I know is ironic considering Gardner’s job after the SciAm gig ended.)


  1. #1 John Sidles
    May 24, 2010

    Thank you for this outstanding post, Dave … it is sad news, but at least he passed “full of years”.

    Truly, Martin Gardner was one of mathematics lamed-vavniks … and who will replace him?

  2. #2 6EQUJ5
    May 24, 2010

    He was the reason I began subscribing to Scientific American.

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    May 24, 2010

    John Sidles: He is irreplaceable.

    Even though he never took a math class beyond high school Martin Gardner was best known for his work in recreational mathematics. His Scientific American Column “Mathematical Games… See More” ran from 1956 to 1981. I remember this being one of the highlights of reading Scientific American as I was growing up. I can’t say I always solved the puzzle but I can say I always learned something.

    Martin Gardner was also an active skeptic, opponent of pseudoscience and a magician. I attended the recent “North East Conference on Science and Skepticism” and James Randi spoke of the importance of Martin Gardner’s influence and friendship to him. Randy’s thoughts on the passing of Martin Gardner can be found on The JREF Blog.

    Every even numbered year puzzlers gather in Atlanta for The Gathering 4 Gardner” to honor his work in recreational mathematics, magic, puzzles and philosophy.

    Martin Gardner is no longer with us but his memory will live on. Every time you share a math puzzled with your kids, or you do a card trick based on a mathematical principle you will be honoring that memory.

    I had letters back and forth with Scientific American, and was a long-shot applicant to replace him in his column, which job correctly went to Douglas Richard Hofstadter (born February 15, 1945 in New York, New York), son of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Hofstadter. He grew up on the campus of Stanford University, where his father was a professor, and he attended the International School of Geneva in 1958-1959. He graduated with Distinction in Mathematics from Stanford University in 1965. He continued his education and received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Oregon in 1975. He is an American academic whose research focuses on consciousness, analogy-making, literary translation, artistic creation, and discovery in mathematics and physics. He is best known for his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, first published in 1979, for which he was awarded the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.

    Doug published me in Scientific American, and in a book, but we’d both have been lost without Martin Gardner’s great and entertaining influence.

    “This sentence contains ten words, eighteen syllables, and sixty-four letters.”

    [Jonathan Vos Post, Scientific American, reprinted in
    "Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern", by Douglas R. Hofstadter, paperback reprint March 1996, pp.26-27]

  4. #4 ARJ
    May 24, 2010

    Even though I loved his recreational math and skeptic stuff, I loved his philosophical essays even more (even when I disagreed with them). An absolute American gem, who left a legacy of writing that can be re-read and re-read.

  5. #5 Neil B
    May 24, 2010

    Yes, this is a sad passing of one of the great thought-provokers and popularizers. I remember in particular, his explanation that we have no way to explain left and right hand to another civilization (Ozma problem) because descriptions can’t make the logical distinction of handness in absolute (rather than relative) terms. There would have to be an example to refer to, it can’t be constructed out of simpler elements. (For example, no amount of talk about x, y. z … coordinates can tell which handness version you mean.) We’d have to put them together.

  6. #6 John Preskill
    May 25, 2010

    That’s funny; I was just thinking about the Ozma problem, too. I learned about it from Gardner’s book “The Ambidextrous Universe” (originally published in 1964), which I read when I was in junior high school. He pointed out that we could convey our convention that distinguishes left from right to a distant civilization by telling them to observe the parity violation in nuclear beta decay. But he also pointed out that this trick works only if the other civilization is made of matter, not anti-matter.

    When he wrote the book, Gardner knew about the parity violation in Nature but not about CP violation, which was discovered the same year that the book came out. Because of CP violation, we now have a solution to the Ozma problem that works even if the other civilization is anti-matter (we tell them to observe K meson or B meson decay, to convey our convention that distinguishes matter from anti-matter).

    I often explain the Ozma problem and its solution in my classes — my homage to Martin Gardner.

  7. #7 ARB
    May 26, 2010

    Ambidextrous Martin
    Whenceforth ye went?
    This May rain misses you

    This poem has ten words, fourteen syllables and fifty-five letters.

  8. #8 Neil B
    June 3, 2010

    Dave, I’m looking forward to new posts and comments …
    Don’t forget to mention the “quantum measurement paradox” now and then … ;-)

  9. #9 Researcher
    June 4, 2010

    More of the sad news: great mathematician Vladimir Arnold, who also wrote some very good, albeit not as known (and more demanding of a reader) as those of Gardner, popular-level books, e.g. Huygens and Barrow, Newton and Hooke and Catastrophe Theory, passed away yesterday in Paris, France.

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