Editor's note: In light of the recent death of Martin Gardner, we are republishing this profile from the December 1995 issue of Scientific American.
The clerk at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in downtown Manhattan is not all that helpful. Having had limited success with smaller retailers, I am hoping that the computer can tell me which of Martin Gardner's 50 or so books are available in the store's massive inventory. Most of his books, of course, deal with recreational mathematics, the topic for which he is best known. But he has also penned works in literature, philosophy and fiction. I am looking specifically for The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, Gardner's essays that detail his approach to life. The clerk tells me to try the religion section, under "Christian friction." Is he kidding?
A scowl breaks across Gardner's otherwise amicable face after I relate the story. He is puzzled, too, but for a different reason. The book has nothing to do with that, Gardner insists. He makes it a point to describe himself as philosophical theist—in the tradition, he says, of Plato and Kant, among others. "I decided I couldn't call myself a Christian in any legitimate sense of the word, but I have retained a belief in a personal God," Gardner clarifies. "I admire the teachings of Jesus, but to me it's a little bit dishonest if you don't think Jesus was divine in some special way"—which Gardner does not.
Theology and philosophy weigh heavily in our conversation, something I did not expect from a man who spent 25 years writing Scientific American' s "Mathematical Games" column and who, in the process, influenced untold numbers of minds. "I think my whole generation of mathematicians grew up reading Martin Gardner," comments Rudy Rucker, a writer and mathematician at San Jose State University. It is not uncommon to run into people who subscribed solely because of the mathematical gamester, a realization not lost on the magazine's caretakers when he resigned in 1981. "Here is the letter I have been dreading to receive from Martin Gardner," memoed then editor Dennis Flanagan to then publisher Gerard Piel. "I had a lot of books I wanted to write," Gardner explains of his decision. "I just didn't have time to do the column. I miss doing it because I met a lot of famous mathematicians through it."
In his living room in Hendersonville, N.C., near the Great Smoky Mountains at the Tennessee border, he rattles off several of these notables. Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford, now a best-selling author about consciousness and the brain, first became famous after Gardner reported Penrose's finding of tiles that can coat a plane without ever repeating the same pattern. John H. Conway of Princeton University saw his game-of-life computer program, a metaphor for evolution, flourish after appearing in the column. Most surprising to me, though, is Gardner's mention of the Dutch artist M. C. Escher, whose work he helped to publicize in 1961. He points to an original Escher print over my head, between the shelves of his wife's collection of antique metal doorstops. If he had known Escher would become famous, Gardner says, he would have bought more. "It's one of the rare pictures with color in it," he remarks. "It's based on Poincaré's model of the hyperbolic plane."