Gardner's timing was perfect. Only a few outlets for recreational mathematicians existed at the time. "A lot of creative mathematicians were making discoveries, but the work was considered too trivial by professional math journals to publish. So I had the pleasure of picking up this stuff." Perhaps more important to the success of the column was his nonmathematical background. "His references were so wonderfully cross-cultural and broad," Rucker states. "He talked about experimental literature, about cranks, about philosophers—relating mathematics to the most exciting things around." He was also able to form a network of associates who passed on ideas. "Martin was very good at giving attribution," says mathematician Ronald L. Graham of AT&T Bell Laboratories. "That inspired people to work on problems."
Gardner has a natural penchant for fun and games. In an April Fools' piece, he claimed Einstein's theory of relativity was disproved and that Leonardo da Vinci invented the flush toilet. At the suggestion of a friend, he harshly panned his own Whys book in a review written under the pseudonym George Groth. "I heard that people read the review and didn't buy the book on my recommendation," Gardner comments.
Although his home seems to display order and formality, Gardner's playfulness is everywhere. Optical illusions abound, including an inside-out face mask illuminated from below that appears holographic, eerily seeming to track a viewer's motions. He demonstrates several magic tricks with rubber bands, at one point rummaging through a closet to extract a fake, blood-dripping severed arm through which he wiggles his own fingers. This Wonderland feeling is appropriate, for Gardner is an expert on Lewis Carroll. His best-seller is The Annotated Alice, in which he shows that Carroll encoded messages, chess moves and caricatures of people he knew. In Los Angeles recently, wealthy electronics store owner John Fry inaugurated a new outlet containing 15- foot statues of the Alice characters—and Gardner was the honored guest.
After nearly 40 years of presenting math, Gardner says the biggest transformation in the field has been the entrance of the computer. "It's changed the character of all mathematics, especially combinatorial math, where problems are impossible to solve by hand. A good example is the four-color map problem, which was finally solved by a computer." The theorem states that at least four hues are needed to paint all planar maps so that no adjacent regions are the same color. Chaos theory, fractals and factoring of prime numbers are a few other examples.
Gardner himself does not own a computer (or, for that matter, a fax or answering machine). He once did—and got hooked playing chess on it. "Then one day I was doing the dishes with my wife, and I looked down and saw the pattern of the chessboard on the surface of the water," he recalls. The retinal retention lasted about a week, during which he gave his computer to one of his two sons. "I'm a scissors-and-rubber-cement man," Gardner says, although he feels he ought to get another computer despite the lasting impression his first one left.
Retirement does not find Gardner at rest. He writes for the Skeptical Inquirer, although he is planning to switch to topics that are not outright shams, such as Freud's dream theory and false memories evoked by therapists. And there is time for games. During my visit, an editor called to say that his firm wants to publish Gardner's manuscript on Lewis Carroll's mathematical puzzles. Gardner describes a recent problem he received from Japan, which dealt with an ant crawling on an extended cube. A mathematician phones to inquire whether Gardner heard anything about a rumor of a new result in Penrose tiling. And every afternoon at 4:30, he and Charlotte investigate fluid dynamics by mixing vodka martinis. For Gardner, the game is the life.