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Martin Gardner, 1914-2010 R.I.P.

May 23rd, 2010 - 7:41 am


I was very sorry to get the news this morning (which I first saw on the invaluable Arts & Letters Daily site)  that the science writer Martin Gardner died yesterday, age 95.

I say “science writer,”  but Gardner was much more than your ordinary, run-of-the-mill scribe reporting on trends, discoveries, and better-living-through chemistry or space exploration.

I first encountered Gardner’s work in high school when I stumbled on The Annotated Alice, his splendid edition of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I later discovered that he also published annotated editions of other works he admired, including The Wizard of Oz, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and several books by G. K. Chesterton, one of his favorite authors.

The many tributes that are beginning to pour in about this extraordinary man bear witness to his irrepressible  energy and curiosity about the natural world. He wrote a veritable library of books — more than seventy — on  mathematics, science, literature, and philosophy and related topics.  One of my favorites is The Ambidextrous Universe — what an intriguing title! — about the properties and amazing prevalence of symmetry and “handedness”  in the universe. Gardner also wrote hundreds — maybe thousands — of columns for Scientific American (for twenty-five years he wrote the magazine’s Mathematical Games column), The Skeptical Inquirer (where he indulged, delightfully, a passion for exposing the chicanery of pseudo-sceince), and other magazines, including, I am proud to say, The New Criterion, for which he wrote some dozen pieces over the last six or seven years.

I never met Gardner, but I got to know him telephonically and through letters (he didn’t use email) because of his work for The New Criterion and his endorsement of a book by the philosopher David Stove that I edited. It is a melancholy pleasure that what may be Gardner’s  last published piece, a review of Amir Alexander’s Duel at Down: Heroes, Martyrs & the Rise of Modern Mathematics, will appear next week in our June issue. Gardner was full of praise for Alexander’s “marvelous history.” But he concludes with a wistful criticism that reveals something essential about his cast of mind. Alexander had prefaced his book with Keats’s famous couplet from Ode on a Grecian Urn:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all

We know on earth, and all ye need to know.

“Alas,” Gardner wrote, “the lines are almost menaingless.  They are not all we know or need to know. Moreover, there are true mathematical theorems  that are ugly, and there are beautiful ‘proofs’  that are false.  T. S. Eliot surely spoke for most literary critics when he called Keats’s lines ‘a serious blemish on a beautiful poem.’”

Gardner combined to an unusual degree an openness to the inherent mystery of the universe with an impatience for mystification. He would have liked the  geneticist J. B. S. Haldane’s comment  that “My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”  At the same time, he devoted considerable energy to exposing the claims of partisans of the paranormal, “new-agers,” and other sentimentalizing renegades from the truth. In April, he published an article on Oprah Winfrey, the “gullible billionaire,” whose fondness for quack medicine  threatens to tempt  her many fans into useless, even dangerous, medical fads.

“Winfrey’s enthusiasm for New Age books reached its apex,” Gardner reports,

when she promoted the monumental idiocy of The Secret. It can be described as a hilarious parody of books by Norman Vincent Peale. Instead of God working miracles, the universe itself does it. The Secret teaches that the universe consists of a vibrating energy that can be tapped into with positive thoughts, allowing you to obtain anything you desire—happiness, love, and of course fabulous wealth. Want to lose weight? Then stop having fat thoughts and think thin! Want to become wealthy? Stop thinking poor thoughts. Think rich!

That represents one side of Gardner’s intellectual activity, the disabused, skeptical side. Another side is on view in many of his essays on philosophy and religion. In The Night is Large, a compendious collection of essays from 1938-1995, Gardner included sections on the physical and social sciences, pseudoscience, mathematics, the arts, philosophy and, finally, religion.  In the last essay, “Surprise,” he describes his own position as “philosophical theist.” Commenting on the deep religious faith of the mathematician Georg Cantor, Gardner writes that

It is because I, too, believe in this “wholly other” realm, a realm in which our universe is an infinitesimal island, that I can call myself a mystic in the Platonic sense.

Gardner went on to acknowledge that he was not “arguing a case but  only expressing an emotion.”

It has no agreed-upon name. There is no way you can talk someone into feeling it, any more than you can talk someone into falling in love or liking a piece of music  or a type of cheese. Rudolf Otto, the German Protestant theologian, coined the word numinous (from the Latin numen, meaning divine power ) to express this emotion. . . .  For Otto, the essence of the emotion is an awareness of what he called the mysterium tremendum, the tremendous mystery of the wholly other. . . .

If one is a theist, the emotion combines with strong feelings of humility, of the littleness of one’s self, of holiness, of gratitude for the privilege of existing.

My last correspondence with Gardner was just a month or so ago. I wrote to tell him about the coincidence that a good friend now occupies the house he lived in for decades on Euclid Avenue (how’s that for an appropriate name?) in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. I discovered this quite by accident. My wife and I were having dinner with a few other people at our friends’ house.  I can’t remember Gardner’s name came up, but when it did I mentioned that he had lived for many years in Hastings-on-Hudson.  “Yes,” said my friend, “and he lived in this very house.” One of the other couples present also knew Gardner. They recalled the time he invited them, shortly after they had moved to the neighborhood, to his house for drinks. Would it be alright if they brought their young children along, since no baby-sitter was available? Of course, nothing could be more agreeable!  They arrived and Gardner proceeded to entertain the children with magic tricks for two hours.

It was some years ago now that I noticed on one of Gardner’s books that he was born in the fateful year 1914.  “Gosh, that’s a long time ago!” I thought.  It is even longer ago now, of course, but then it is an oft-noted fact that one’s sense of time compresses as one ages. At twenty, sixty years seems a very long time. At fifty, it no longer seems quite so extensive. And of course sub specie aeternitas, which view we can never inhabit but only allude to, such puny spans of time are as nothing. A thought which tends, I believe, to nurture that sense of “ontological wonder” Martin Gardner so eloquently evoked.

Requiescat in pace.

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