Chris French mourns the passing of Martin Gardner, a prolific writer and populariser of mathematics, and one of the most influential figures in scepticism
Martin Gardner's uncompromising attacks on fringe science and New Age ideas delighted his admirers and enraged his detractors.
Love or hate him, you just have to admire him.
Like French, Gardener has had quite a prominent place in the mindset that I provide to RiPA and his work will always have a place on my bookshelf. Thats not to say that I always agreed with what he said but alot of his points provided good ground for argument.
Now lets go over to Chris French:
I woke up on Sunday morning to some very sad news. Martin Gardner had died the previous day at the age of 95.
Gardner's life was not only long but extraordinarily productive. He was a polymath and a gifted writer, publishing more than 70 books in his long career as well as innumerable magazine and newspaper articles. His wide range of interests included recreational mathematics, pseudoscience, scepticism, magic, religion, philosophy and literature. He will be mourned by many hundreds of thousands around the world.
It is no exaggeration to describe Gardner as one of the most influential figures in scepticism. In 1976 he was a founding member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP; now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, CSI).
His sceptical credentials were already well established by that time. Back in 1952 he had published his seminal analysis of the nature of pseudoscience, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. In this classic work, which is still well worth reading, he demolished a wide range of pseudoscientific claims to the total satisfaction of any reader with an iota of critical intelligence. His targets covered a very wide range including UFOs, creationism, Atlantis, scientology, Rudolf Steiner, dowsing, reincarnation, and Wilhelm Reich – to name but a few. It is, of course, slightly depressing to realise just how contemporary this book still sounds.
Gardner's uncompromising attacks on fringe science and New Age ideas delighted his admirers and enraged his detractors for many decades. From 1983 to 2002, he contributed a regular column to the Skeptical Inquirer magazine under the title "Notes of a fringe watcher" and published several more sceptical books including Science: Good, Bad and Bogus and Order and Surprise.
His interests were by no means limited to science and mathematics, however, and he found time to write many acclaimed books of literary criticism. The most successful of these is probably his annotated versions of the Alice stories (available in several versions including The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition). Gardner and Lewis Carroll had a huge amount in common: a passion for mathematics and logical puzzles, a love of conjuring, and a curious and playful intellect that delighted in wordplay and whimsy.
Little wonder then that the Annotated Alice books are such a joy to read, as Gardner explains the literary references, solves the puzzles and unravels the clever puns in the most loved of Carroll's offerings. I can still remember my delight at being presented with so many translations of the famous Jabberwocky nonsense poem, "'Twas brillig and the slithy toves ..."
He also produced annotated versions of several other classic works including G. K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown and The Man Who Was Thursday and poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Night Before Christmas. He even wrote fictional works, including the semi-autobiographical novel The Flight of Peter Fromm.
He will probably be best remembered as the man who made maths fun in a way that no one else had ever quite managed before. This was no doubt partly because he never took a maths course beyond high school. Indeed, it is said that he struggled to learn calculus. But what he did have was a fascination with puzzles and magic tricks and a wonderful ability to communicate and share his enthusiasm, which eventually led to his writing a recreational mathematics column for Scientific American that ran for 25 years.
Many collections of his perplexing and intriguing brain-teasers were published under such titles as Mathematical Carnival and Mathematical Circus. For many people, including me, these books were a first introduction to the playful and creative mind of Mr Gardner.
In light of the above, his views on religion may come as a surprise. Unlike most sceptics, he was neither an atheist nor an agnostic. Instead he described himself as "a philosophical theist". He was critical of organised religion but he believed in God. This belief, he felt, depended entirely upon faith and could never be proved or disproved by science and logic. He did not believe that God intervenes directly in the world to perform miracles or that God communicates directly with human beings, but he believed that human beings live happier lives through faith and prayer.
Like hundreds of thousands of other fans throughout the world, although I never met Gardner, I am sure I would have liked him if I had. By all accounts he was a shy man who did not enjoy appearing in public. I feel I know something of him through his books and I mourn his passing. However, his loss will obviously be felt so much more keenly by those who did have a close personal relationship with him. James Randi, himself a towering figure within scepticism, is one such person. I leave you with his words:
My world is a little darker...
Martin Gardner has died. I have dreaded to type those words, and Martin would not have wanted to know that I'm so devastated at what I knew – day to day – had to happen very soon. I'm glad to report that his passing was painless and quick. That man was one of my giants, a very long-time friend of some 50 years or so. He was a delight, a very bright spot in my firmament, one to whom I could always turn to with a question or an idea, with any strange notion I could invent, and with any complaint or comment I could come up with.
I never had an angry word with Martin. Never. It was all laughs and smiles, all the best of everything.
Forgive me for writing this without any editing. It's just as it occurs to me. I can't quite picture my world without him, and just yesterday I printed up a new set of mailing labels for him, plus stationery, which didn't get mailed. For the last few years I supplied him with that small favor, assuring him that he should notify me when he ran out, but he never did, because he thought it was too much trouble for me. Only when I received a letter from him last week that was hand-addressed, did I know that it was time for another shipment to Oklahoma.
He was such a good man, a productive and useful member of our society, and I can anticipate the international reaction to his passing. His books – so many of them – remain to remind us of his contributions to us all. His last one was dedicated to me, and I am just so proud of that fact, so very proud…
It will take a while, but Martin would want me to get on with my life, so I will.
Tags: martin gardener chris french james randi scepticism csicop csi
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