Thursday, May 27, 2010


(Updated below.)

*Not an anagram fan? Tsk. Well, here it is in simple substitution code:

Or classic ROT-13:

And en clair:
RIP Martin Gardner

Before Will Shortz was accepting Doctorates in Enigmology, there was Martin Gardner, whose "Mathematical Games" back-page feature of Scientific American was, from 1956 to 1981, the reward for shouldering your way through articles on the production and decay of subatomic particles during the first 1/1036 second after the Big Bang.

Gardner died last weekend at the age of 95. Or at least we think he did:

He was so prolific and wide-ranging in his interests that critics speculated that there just had to be more than one of him.

And more:
His mathematical writings intrigued a generation of mathematicians, but he never took a college math course. If it seemed the only thing this polymath could not do was play music on a saw, rest assured that he could, and quite well.

"Martin Gardner is one of the great intellects produced in this country in the 20th century," said Douglas Hofstadter, the cognitive scientist.

W. H. Auden, Arthur C. Clarke, Jacob Bronowski, Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan were admirers of Mr. Gardner. Vladimir Nabokov mentioned him in his novel "Ada' as "an invented philosopher." An asteroid is named for him.

Mr. Gardner responded that his life was not all that interesting, really. "It’s lived mainly inside my brain," he told The Charlotte Observer in 1993.

His was a clarifying intelligence: he said his talent was asking good questions and transmitting the answers clearly and crisply. In "Annotated Alice" (1960), Mr. Gardner literally rained on the parade of his hero, Lewis Carroll.

Carroll writes of a "golden afternoon" in the first line of "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland," a reference to an actual day rowing on the Thames. Mr. Gardner found that the day, July 4, 1862, was, in truth, "cool and rather wet."

Mr. Gardner’s questions were often mathematical. What is special about the number 8,549,176,320? As Mr. Gardner explained in "The Incredible Dr. Matrix" (1976), the number is the 10 natural integers arranged in English alphabetical order.

The title of a book he published in 2000 was calculated to tweak religious fundamentalists — "Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?" — suggesting that the first man and woman had had umbilical cords. This time he gave no answer.

"Gardner has an old-fashioned, almost 19th-century, Oliver Wendell Holmes kind of American mind — self-educated, opinionated, cranky and utterly unafraid of embarrassment," Adam Gopnik wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1999.

(By the way, given the subject's love of precision and economy in language, I feel compelled to note that in the use of "literally," above, the Times' obituary writer commits a literary howler. Mr. Gardner was a man of many talents, but even he could not have precipitated himself as water upon Mr. Carroll. Better simply to use the phrase "rained on his parade" as is, since it already means what it means.)

Update: Courtesy of


1 comment:

Nothstine said...

Note: On further consideration, but without double-checking the SA archives, I think that the article about subatomic particles during the first split-second after the Big Bang may actually have been published shortly after Gardner's retirement from SA in 1981.