The puzzling life of Martin Gardner

His 'Mathematical Games' column that ran in Scientific American from 1957 to 1986 introduced obscure concepts to lay readers. As his autobiography is published, Jason England looks back on a career of endless curiosity.

Columnist Marilyn vos Savant, with claims to the highest recorded IQ in history, calls him “incomparable” while to biologist Richard Dawkins he was a “great hero of the sceptical movement”. Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter describes him as a “great intellect” and Salvador Dali invited him to lunch (twice). The late, great Martin Gardner even has an asteroid named after him.

Gardner was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1914. His father was a petroleum industry geologist and his mother an educator and artist. As a young man, Gardner had a fascination with puzzles, poetry, science and magic that remained with him for the rest of his life. During his schooling, Gardner discovered other subjects that fascinated him. Chess, philosophy, and the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell, and Lewis Carroll were all major influences. In the early 1950s, Gardner became a professional writer after submitting several articles to Esquire magazine.

His first book, In the Name of Science, was released in 1952 and became an international bestseller. It was re-released by Dover in 1957 as Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Gardner dismantled numerous pseudoscientific topics: flying saucers, dowsing rods, the book of Genesis, Dianetics (the forerunner to Scientology), osteopathy, chiropractic, and ESP were thrown under his microscope. None emerged entirely intact.

In 1956, Gardner began to write the series of articles that would come to define him. His “Mathematical Games” column ran in Scientific American from January of 1957 until 1986. He produced nearly 300 articles and introduced dozens of obscure mathematical concepts to lay readers. Hexaflexagons, Hempel’s Paradox, the game of Hex, polyominos, Soma cubes, the artwork of M.C. Escher, non-transitive numbers, the four-colour map problem, the prisoner’s dilemma, mobius strips, klein bottles, the turn-of-the-century puzzles of Sam Lloyd and H. E. Dudeney, Gray codes, Conway’s game of Life, anamorphic art, hypercards, and ambigrams had all been virtually unknown outside of professional mathematical circles.

Eventually his columns would fill 14 large books yet they represent but a fraction of his total output.

Even apart from mathematics and puzzles, Gardner’s output was staggering. He published several books on theatrical magic including a nearly 600-page single volume encyclopaedia of impromptu magic tricks done with everyday objects like paperclips and rubber bands, edited at least three large collections of classic poetry, compiled multiple volumes of science writings (both fiction and non-fiction) and wrote, edited or contributed to annotated editions of Thayer’s Casey at the Bat, Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Moore’s The Night Before Christmas and G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.

As if the above were not enough, in 1962 Gardner wrote a book on Einstein’s theory of relativity, considered a terrific introduction to the topic by most experts. In case you might be thinking that most university physics majors could do that, stop and consider that Gardner never took a physics course or advanced mathematics courses in college.

Besides his magazine column, Gardner’s best-known work is without question his book The Annotated Alice. Initially published in 1960 and updated several times since, it is the most complete explanation of the mathematics, stories and Victorian-era humour hidden within Carroll’s classics.

Writer and poser of puzzles Martin Gardner – Elliott Erwitt / Magnum / Snapper Media

I was privileged to meet Gardner. After his wife Charlotte died in 2000, he had moved back to Oklahoma City to be near his son Jim.

We talked about magic, mathematics, cheating moves with playing cards, the mysterious and anonymous author of a book from 1902 about card cheating that is considered a classic by magicians around the world. I also asked how Gardner was spending his free time. His answer astounded me. At 94, Martin Gardner was busy writing not one, but two books. One of those was his autobiography Undiluted Hocus-Pocus.

Gardner passed away on May 22, 2010 at the age of 95. His books are an enduring legacy for us all.

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