(Roughly) Daily

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty”*…

Readers will know of your correspondent’s deep affection and respect for Martin Gardner (c.f., e.g., here), so will understand his inability to pass up this appreciation:

You may think that the most interesting man in the world has a scraggly gray beard, drinks Mexican beer, and hangs out with women half his age. But you’re dead wrong. I discovered the real deal, the authentic most interesting man in the world, on the shelves on my local public library when I was a freshman in high school. His name was Martin Gardner.

I first stumbled upon Gardner’s work while rummaging around a bottom shelf in the rear of the library, right below my favorite book in the building, Jean Hugard’s The Royal Road to Card Magic. The Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, published by Gardner in 1959, represented a big leap from Hugard, yet I devoured as much of it as my 14-year-old mind could comprehend. Much of the math was too advanced for me, but the parts I understood charmed and delighted me. I came back the next week to check out The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions. I followed up with Gardner’s The Numerology of Dr. Matrix and Unexpected Hangings, also on the shelves on the library, and soon purchased a copy of his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science at a used bookstore. Around this same time, I bought, at great expense, a brand new hardbound copy of 536 Curious Problems and Puzzles by Henry Ernest Dudeney, and learned that this treasure trove of strange and peculiar diversions had been edited by (yes, you guessed it) Martin Gardner. I felt like shouting out: “Mama, there’s that man again!”

Later I learned that Gardner’s expertise extended far beyond math and science. I can’t even begin to explain my delight when I discovered that Gardner fraternized with magicians. During my teen years, I spent countless hours practicing card tricks and sleights-of-hand — I never realized my ambition of performing as a card magician, but the finger dexterity later helped when I switched my focus to playing jazz piano — and I was thrilled to learn that Gardner knew Dai Vernon, Frank Garcia, Paul Curry, Ed Marlo, and other masters of playing card prestidigitation. They were not household names. In my mind, someone like Dai Vernon was way too cool to be known by the uninitiated. But these were precisely the kind of mysterious masterminds of obscure arts that Martin Gardner would include among his buddies.

And finally as a humanities student at Stanford I learned about Martin Gardner’s contributions as literary critic and scholar. His annotated guide to Lewis Carroll is a classic work of textual deconstruction (although Gardner would never have used that term), and my boyhood hero also applied his sharp analytical mind to deciphering the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.K. Chesterton, and L. Frank Baum. I could continue the list, but you get the idea. Whatever your interests — whether the theory of relativity or “Jabberwocky,” the prisoner’s dilemma or a mean bottom deal from a clean deck, Martin Gardner was your man. He ranks among the greatest autodidacts and polymaths of the 20th century. Or, as I prefer to say, he was the most interesting man in the world, the fellow I would invite to that mythical dinner party where all parties, living or dead, are compelled to accept your invitation…

Read on for Ted Gioia‘s (@tedgioia) appreciation of Gardner’s autobiogrphical works: “Martin Gardner: The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

* Bertrand Russell


As we add it up, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to J. H. C. (Henry) Whitehead; he was born on this date in 1904. A mathematician (and nephew of Alfred North Whitehead), he was a topographer, one of the founders of homotopy theory, an approach to mapping of topological spaces.

Born in Chennai and educated at Oxford and Princeton, he joined the codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II and by 1945 was one of some fifteen mathematicians working in the “Newmanry,” a section headed by Max Newman that was responsible for breaking a German teleprinter cipher using machine methods– which included the use of Colossus machines, early digital electronic computers.

He spent the rest of his career at Oxford (where he was Waynflete Professor of Pure Mathematics at Magdalen College). He served as president of the London Mathematical Society, which created two prizes in his memory: the annually-awarded Whitehead Prize and the biennially-awarded Senior Whitehead Prize.


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