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This article is from the In-Depth Report A Tribute to Martin Gardner, 1914-2010

Scholars and Others Pay Tribute to "Mathematical Games" Columnist Martin Gardner

Gardner eschewed special attention for his work, despite having single-handedly popularized recreational mathematics in the U.S. Nevertheless, some fond memories and insights into the man are posted below.



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Editor's Note: Martin Gardner, who wrote the "Mathematical Games" column for Scientific American magazine for 25 years and published more than 70 books, died May 22 at 95. Scientific American editor Steve Mirsky solicited the following tributes and remembrances of Gardner from various colleagues. We also invite readers to share their comments below regarding Gardner, his column and/or its impact.


"It always seemed fitting to me that a man who'd written so engagingly on paradoxes should have had a career that was itself a bit of a paradox. Martin didn't study much (or any) math in college, yet probably did more to stimulate an appreciation for, curiosity about, and discussion of mathematical ideas than 213 of us mathematics professors. Over the years we exchanged a couple of book blurbs, a signal honor for me, and also corresponded a bit about jokes. I remember once being quite amused by a letter from him with some quite non-G–rated examples. A modest man, a clear-eyed skeptic, an expositor extraordinaire, he will be sorely missed."

—John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, author of Innumeracy and, most recently, of Irreligion


"This is really a sad day. Not so much sad that Martin died, since we all knew it had to come pretty soon, but sad because his spirit was so important to so many of us, and because he had such a profound influence on so many of us. He is totally unreproducible—he was sui generis—and what's so strange is that so few people today are really aware of what a giant he was in so many fields—to name some of them: the propagation of truly deep and beautiful mathematical ideas (not just "mathematical games," far from it!); the intense battling of pseudoscience and related ideas; the invention of superb magic tricks; the love for beautiful poetry; the fascination with profound philosophical ideas (Newcomb's paradox, free will, etcetera etcetera); the elusive border between nonsense and sense; the idea of intellectual hoaxes done in order to make serious points (for example, one time, at my instigation, he wrote a scathing review of his own book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener in The New York Review of Books, and the idea was to talk about the ideas seriously even though he was attacking the ideas that he himself believed in); and on and on and on and on. Martin Gardner was so profoundly influential on so many top-notch thinkers in so many disciplines—just a remarkable human being—and at the same time he was so unbelievably modest and unassuming. Totally. So it is a very sad day to think that such a person is gone, and that so many of us owe him so much, and that so few people—even extremely intelligent, well-informed people—realize who he was or have even ever heard of him. Very strange. But I guess that when you are a total non–self-trumpeter like Martin, that's what you want and that's what you get. And so perhaps it's all for the best that he remains sort of hidden behind the scenes, known only to a special set of people."

—Gardner's friend Douglas Hofstadter, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid


"When I was 14 years old, at the height of the Vietnam War, I picked up a copy of Scientific American. The articles were serious affairs with thin-lined graphs and a sparing use of color. For the most part, I could read only the first page. Then I got to Martin's column. A whole world opened for me. These were puzzles I could do, at least sometimes. I was so excited that I subscribed and thought how cool it would be to write such a column one day.

Twenty years later, I wrote my first puzzle book The Puzzling Adventures of Dr. Ecco. I sent the manuscript to Jerry Lyons at W. H. Freeman. To my great surprise and delight he called me and said he'd like to publish the book. His reason: Martin had liked it. Dr. Ecco is a mathematical detective a little in the Holmesian mold, but his sidekick and chronicler, Professor Scarlet, is always careful to tell the reader everything that Dr. Ecco knows before Ecco uncovers fraud, finds a submarine, or breaks a code. There is a little Martin in every story.

In early 2001 I began writing the "Puzzling Adventures" column for Scientific American, first in the magazine and later on the Web site. I always tried to write the columns so they could be done by any smart kid, 12 years to 120. Thanks to Martin."

—Dennis Shasha, Department of Computer Science, Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University


"I never met Martin Gardner—my fault, there were opportunities—but he had a big influence on my career. His "Mathematical Games" column showed me, as a teenager, that new mathematics is constantly being created, and it encouraged the sheer enjoyment of the subject. Eventually I inherited the column, and my biggest problem was that Martin had already described most of the really good material. I didn't try to emulate him, because that would be impossible, but he did teach me that enthusiasm must be allied to clear thinking. The way to explain math to nonspecialists is to understand it thoroughly yourself, to strip away needless technicalities, and to focus on the central story. But you also have to enjoy what you're talking about or the magic doesn't work. When I was a PhD student Martin gave several of us some useful advice when we were setting up a student mathematics magazine, and he occasionally mentioned it in his column. Later, he was generous enough to write a preface for one of my books. His writing has been valued by generations of professional mathematicians, and he taught us that we could relax and let our hair down without damaging our reputations or our subjects. Indeed, that this was one excellent way to get our message out to the world. His influence on the world's mathematics has been enormous, and he is irreplaceable. His passing leaves a huge emptiness, and we will all miss him. But at least we still have the priceless legacy of his books."

—Ian Stewart, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, Digital Media Fellow, Mathematics Institute, University of Warwick

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