Remembering Martin Gardner, with Douglas Hofstadter
Martin Gardner died May 22nd at 95. He wrote the Mathematical Games column for Scientific American magazine for 25 years and published more than 70 books. Podcast host Steve Mirsky (pictured) talks with Gardner's friend Douglas Hofstadter, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, about Martin Gardner.
Steve: This is a special edition of Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American. I'm Steve Mirsky. Martin Gardner died this past Saturday, May 22nd. He was 95 years old, and he is still probably the person most associated with Scientific American magazine. His Mathematical Games column ran from 1956 to 1981. He also published more than 70 books and was a truly beloved figure around the world. Douglas Hofstadter is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach and took over Martin's column, changing the name to the anagram Metamagical Themas. On Monday, May 24th I called Hofstadter in Paris to talk about Martin Gardner.
Steve: You wrote back in 1992: "I came to understand that there were thousands of people spread all around the world, mathematicians, physicists, philosophers, computer scientists, on and on, who thought of Martin Gardner's column not merely as a feature of Scientific American but as its very heart and soul." How was Martin the heart and soul of the magazine?
Hofstadter: Well when I was, when I came to know Martin Gardner's column, I was probably on the order of 14 years old, and it might have been a little bit earlier, and I will always remember that, the excitement that there would be if I went to the mailbox of my parents' house and found the copy of Scientific American had arrived; and I instantly flipped it open, look to the page where Martin Gardner's column was, went to that page and was [riveted] by whatever he said every time without any exception. And I realized later—not at that time but perhaps many years later—that many, many, many people did exactly that, that in some sense Scientific American was just the wrapping itself was just the wrapping for Martin Gardner's column. Martin Gardner's column was what it was all about it, it was so full of profundity and humor and paradox, exploration of fantastic new ideas that are so stimulating to people who enjoy mathematics or philosophy; just this mixing of beauty and paradox mixed together with also a wonderful dose of sense of humor.
Steve: You wrote in that 1992 essay about Martin's passion for paradox, and you wrote, "I would say that more than anything this passion gave Martin his virtually unerring sense for what is important." How did that the attraction to paradox inform his ideas about what was truly important to be thinking about?
Hofstadter: Well I think that somehow when humans thought, human intuition I should say, that [is], sort of, the everyday intuition conflicts with the way the world really is, it always hides something; there is something profound going on when our everyday intuition is in conflict with the nature of the world. And this happens all the time in mathematics and in physics, and it also happens in a certain sense in philosophy; when we try to understand any deep question in any discipline. And Martin was drawn in, you know, a powerful, magnetic sense towards these places where there is a disconnect between human intuition and the truth, and he favored them, he relished this kind of thing and he made the reader understand how deep these things were and how mysterious the world is. And I have never seen anyone who writes that way about the nature of truth, you know, a beautiful book that he wrote, it's not his column but, was the Ambidextrous Universe, it was the book that went into enormous detail about the question of left-right symmetry and time-reversal symmetry and the way in which these kinds of symmetries pervade nature and pervade physics and then it had been it turned out that there was a third symmetry in that family called charge conjugation symmetry, which is the simply the interchange of a particle with its antiparticle. And if you should combine all three that is, time reversal and mirror reversal and charge conjugation or reversing particles or antiparticles, [there's] a theorem in physics that says that that if you do those all things the world is the same, if you do all three of them. It used to have been thought that the world would be the same if you did any one of them, if you would, that if you did a mirror reversal of anything that happened in the mirror would be physically possible. And Martin explains very beautifully why that's not the case, counter to our intuition; that processes in a mirror aren't always physically realizable, and why time-reverse processes are not possible, and that's a very profound issue having to deal with the arrow of time which seems to conflict with the symmetry of the laws of physics. There are so many things, I mean, that's just an example but the Ambidextrous Universe was a beautiful book that I have given to many friends just, an example of so many books that he wrote that explains beautifully and with millions of examples these profound things.
Steve: Yeah, he wrote a book called The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, The Whys, W-H-Y-S...
Hofstadter: …Yeah, yes...
Steve: …of a Philosophical Scrivener, and at your instigation he then wrote a bad review of his own book for The New York Review of Books. Talk a little bit about why you recommended that he do that and what the purpose of that was?
Hofstadter: Well, of course I didn't know whether he could, I mean, of course he could try but I didn't know whether the editor would approve such a thing, but in fact the editor had a good sense of humor, and I, you know, I don't remember why I suggested it, but I do know that Martin was extremely fond of intellectual hoaxes. He thought that the hoax was a marvelous way of getting people to think deeply, and he put in a lot of hoaxes in his own column, usually in the April issue, because that, of course, gives you an excuse. But in [the] case of this review I don't know if it came out in April or when, but all I know is that he convinced The New York Review of Books editor to let him do it, and he wrote a scathing review of his book. But the point was that Martin knew very well what the objections would be and he wrote the objections very well; he represented the opposite side very, very well. But as he went on it became sort of more and more heavy and more and more and strain, and finally in the last sentence he said that the narrator of this review, the persona that he was putting on said, that Martin Gardner occasionally writes reviews under pseudonyms and one of the pseudonyms that he uses is blah, blah, blah, and that was the name of the person who was supposedly writing this review. So he revealed in the very last line that this was all, not a hoax, but that it was his own take on how the world would disagree with him, and in a sense he really did a good job of showing how the world would disagree with him. I think that nobody could have written a more accurate, negative review of his book and yet it brought out all the interest of the book at the same time; I mean it brought out all the issues that he was trying to cover in a lovely way.
Steve: It's actually a terrific exercise for any writer who is trying to make an important point, to go through it and challenge yourself; Darwin does it in Origin of Species to some degree.
Hofstadter: Yeah, no, I agree; it requires a lot of self control and accurate self perception and so forth. I might add, you know, there are so many things that Martin Gardner did that are so important to me, but I should mention his first, the first book of his that I ever saw, which was Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, which I remember very clearly running into at age 14 in a friend's book[shelf] and that book just, what's the word, the scales fell from my eyes I think is the expression; meaning that I, up until age 14, even though I had grown up in a family, my father was a physicist and I was very exposed to science, I never really thought too much about, I mean, things that, sort of, you might say superstitions or just, sort of, I don't know, mysterious [forces] in the world, you know ESP and paranormal things and predicting the future and such things. And I had never really given it much thought, and I was as susceptible to such ideas, I suppose, as anyone else is. And I mean it made sense vaguely at least to me that you could dream things and they could come that you could dream things and that it happened on the other side of the world and they would turn out to have been true or [that you] could predict the future in some way by some mysterious means. Well when I came across that book Martin attacked maybe 15 to 20 different kinds of crazy belief systems, and I [had] never seen anything like it, never ever. And the writing style was so incisive, so full of pepper and so full of intense clarity, I mean just bursts of a sort of fireworks of clarity; I mean you would just understand why these ideas were so ridiculous, so nonsensical. And as I said the scales fell off from my eyes; I read every chapter with enormous fascination and I was also fascinated by the fact, this was Martin's second edition, and in his preface to it, he said that when the first edition it come out he was inundated by letters from enthusiastic people who said to him that they loved every chapter of his book except for one, and they would always pick [out] the ones that, their favorite crackpot belief system was being attacked, and then they would say they were so happy to see all the others destroyed. And this is [an] extremely funny lesson about humanity, and as I say it was a real revelation to me, and Martin one of his sacred causes for his entire life was to combat pseudoscience; and he did it more masterfully and more intensely perhaps than anyone else on the surface of the Earth, and I think that's one of his great and permanent legacies.
Steve: And you credit him with giving a real boost to your famous book Gödel, Escher, Bach when it came out he devoted a full column space to discussing it, and you think that had a lot to do with the popularity of the book.
Hofstadter: I do and I want to point out something about that. My close friend Scott Kim was working in the same building as I was when I was writing Gödel, Escher, Bach and Scott was very, very involved in helping me evaluate whether passages were good or not and then stimulating, me giving me good ideas; I used a number of ideas due to Scott in the book, and Scott wrote a piece, I don't know maybe a 25-page article called "Strange Loop Gazette" when the book was not yet published, and he sent it off to Martin, and I know that that Scott Kim's "Strange Loop Gazette" had a very big impact on Martin Gardner and made him understand a lot of things about my book, and I owe a great deal to Scott Kim. But my point is not only about Scott, my point is really that Martin was so in contact with so many brilliant individuals—and Scott is a truly brilliant person, in fact Martin devoted at least one or two columns, maybe even three to Scott's ideas—but my point is that that Martin was in contact with these brilliant minds all around the United States and Europe and the rest of the world, and he managed to stay on top of the correspondence and to incorporate good ideas that came from all sorts of places, and he was very willing toward the later part of his life to share with people the immense amount of stuff that he had received. I think Don [Kunitz] at Stanford is the person who is the biggest beneficiary, and I think he has all of Martin's files, and I mean it's an incredible treasure trove of ideas. And so my point is that yeah, Martin did a wonderful favor for me but I think it was these partly due to Scott Kim; but of course it was [filtered] through Martin's intelligence, and Martin was the author of the article, but I think that somehow Scott Kim triggered it and this was very typical of how Martin worked. He took people's ideas and expressed them in the best possible way.
Steve: And in 1981 you find yourself at Martin Gardner's house…
Hofstadter: I think it was late 1980, you know.
Steve: Late 1980, you were preparing to actually take over his column, and could you talk a little bit about his time with you there and the day you spent together?
Hofstadter: Yeah, well what I remember is he came to pick me up at the train station, and he was very, very sweet, very kind, very gentle and very humble, and his sense of humor came out very quickly and it was a self-effacing sense of humor. And we arrived at his house, and I was introduced to Charlotte, his wife, who was a very kind woman, a little bit peppery but extremely generous. And I entered their house and I saw that it was very tastefully decorated and that there was no evidence on the lower floors, at least the main floor, that there was any kind of connection with mathematics or science; the[re] were just ordinary kinds of pictures, but very, very tasteful. And then Martin and I climbed up to the third floor where his study was, and [it was] just, you know, completely jam-packed with books that were so fascinating to me. I, you know, I didn't know how to resist picking up a book after a book after a book but I had to because we were just sitting there talking and we talked and talked and talked. And Martin was thinking that when I would take over the column that it would be very similar in spirit to his own, but I was thinking that it would have some things in common but not as much as he thought. And so I remember there was a, you know, he was showing me all sorts of things that he had hoped to put into the column, and I was thinking to myself, "Wow, you know these would have been great, but this is not the kind of thing that I myself I am likely to do." But I was fascinated by everything he told me, and as I wrote in that article, we were interrupted at one point by [a] phone call from Ray Smullyan, the logician and magician and musician—although I didn't know about the latter two, I only knew of him as a logician at the time and a very, very influential logician on myself; he had written a book that had a great impact on me. And so here I was listening, overhearing this conversation between [a person] that I truly admired, Ray Smullyan, and Martin Gardner, who I had admired even longer, and I had no idea that had any connection; and what was even stranger was that this was a conversation about a book that Smullyan had written called The Tao is Silent and I was learning that Smullyan was, you know, was a multifaceted person and fascinating person. And it again, it brought home to me the way in which Martin Gardner was at the hub of a vast universe of brilliant, sparkling intellect—including people like Marvin Minsky [at] the M.I.T. artificial intelligence lab; and John Conway who at the time was in England and later came to Princeton and who invented so many deep and fascinating mathematical ideas, especially the Game of Life, to which Martin devoted several columns and which was an incredibly important thing in bringing new ideas to the world of computation and about the cellular automata; and Donald Knuth at Stanford, the great computer [scientist]; Perci Diaconis a statistician who is fascinated by paradoxes of probability and a great magician as well; and Ray Hyman, a psychologist who had a spent a great deal of his life debunking people such as [Uri Geller]; and James Randi, one of the great magicians of our era who also was one of the most important debunkers of pseudoscience in the world. And all these people, and I am just scratching the surface, all these people he was in constant contact with, and they were close friends, and it was really quite mind boggling, and I found out about this when I was spending the day with him. And as I say, he was kind of grooming me to be his exact successor, and I was realizing that I couldn't be, and I would fall flat on my face if I tried to be a copy of Martin Gardner, but that I had my own interest and that I would have to go a little bit in my own direction. And so when I, you know, did do the column, I rearranged the letters in his column Mathematical Games in order to spell a different pair of words: Metamagical Themas, which is what my column was but it used the same letters, tipping my hat to Martin Gardner, but at the same time saying I can't do what he did for 25 years so beautifully and, you know, that was how my column, you know, started out.
Steve: You must have gotten a kick out of the rearrangement of the letters, too.
Hofstadter: It was quite fun. I love playing with words and Martin is an inveterate player with words and with language, and he savored the way in which other people did it. And he had this way of inspiring creativity among his readers, and he would, you know, show a limerick that had the [wrong] number of lines and in the next issue there will be several limericks that had all sorts of things wrong with them, usually self-referential limericks, you know, that would describe their own defects, and in the [wittiest] ways. And he just had a way of coaxing creativity out of people and inspiring people; and when I say people, I mean they ranged from those who are simply lovers of mathematics without necessarily having world class talent to world class mathematicians such as Don Knuth and John Conway and Ron Graham, who was the president of the American Mathematical Society, and a great juggler incidentally; and also I think Ron may be a magician although I am not positive of that. But the point is that these people [are] multifaceted and Martin interested people all the way from the humble teenager that I had been, to these, you know, Field's Medal–winning mathematician[s], and there was a continuum of people. And I don't [mean] to limit it to mathematicians, because as I say he was involved in many fields: the philosophy of science, the philosophy of mind, the magic debunking, and poetry. Martin was an extreme advocate of formal verse with precise rhyming and precise rhythm, and he, you know, he didn't make any he didn't hide this interest; and he had great disdain for poetry without structure. And he published a lot of volumes of annotated poetry and trying to preserve a kind of a sense of the beauty, the fluid beauty of the language, of the music of language, and I think that even though it may not be [in vogue] these days, I think that Martin had a very strong sense of what beauty was in language, and he managed to convey it. It may not ring true with the people in the lit-crit world, but I think to the average person, what Martin was saying was rang [true] very much.
Steve: You know, you mentioned Raymond Smullyan and there's a story that, even though it's a Ray Smullyan story and not a Martin Gardner story, it may really illustrate the way a very simple thought process can inspire somebody to think about these paradoxical issues. And Ray Smullyan, I don't know if you recall this, but he was actually on The Tonight Show one night with Johnny Carson.
Hofstadter: No I didn't know this.
Steve: Yeah, he had a book out and you know Johnny Carson was an amateur magician as well.
Hofstadter: Oh! I didn't know that.
Steve: Yeah and he was very attracted to these kinds of things; Johnny Carson: also a very passionate amateur astronomer and a big donor to James Randi's debunking efforts, in fact.
Hofstadter: No kidding.
Hofstadter: This is a fascinating revelation.
Steve: Yeah, and so Ray Smullyan is sitting on the Johnny Carson's show, and he is talking about the fact that when he was a little boy, his older brother had told him on April Fool's day to watch out because the older brother was going to play quite a trick on him on April Fool's day. And April fool's day came and went and Ray Smullyan, the little boy, said to his brother the next day, so you know what was the trick, and the brother said you waited all day for the trick and it never happened, that was the trick.
Hofstadter: You know I remember this anecdote. I certainly remember the anecdote and very typical of; as you say it's not a Martin story but it's the kind of story that Martin favored, and as you point out very well this is a perfect example of a paradox. And Martin's columns about the unexpected hanging are all about this very issue of the, sort of, the conflict between the, what I guess technically they would call the object level and the meta level. I mean there was no surprise at the base level or the object level but there was a surprise at the meta level because there wasn't, because the surprise was that there wasn't that surprise. And this kind of thing is very, very important as it turns out. Many people think if that is as kind of silly or just game playing, but it turns out that these ideas are at the roots, these ideas about self-reference are also at the roots of the self-reproduction and are at the roots of how living beings reproduce themselves; because the same mechanism of self-reference has to be used in order for an object, the machine or a molecule, to reproduce itself. And this is the kind of thing that Martin would point out in his columns, that you know, there is a profound link between what seem to be maybe light-hearted or paradoxes and extremely deep things, things that are at the very core of all of human existence or all of life for that matter. This is the kind of thing that Martin would point out in favor in his columns.