Sunday, May 23, 2010

Martin Gardner (1914 - 2010)

Martin Gardner has died.

He was my introduction to critical thinking. When I was in high school I looked forward each month to his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American magazine. He used puzzles and games to teach complex subjects and make math fun.

He had an amazing career. Despite never taking a math course after high school he became proficient in many mathematical techniques. He single handedly made mathematical puzzles popular and taught generations of Americans to think logically. I learned many problem solving techniques from Gardner’s columns and books.

His reviews in Scientific American also introduced me to some of my favorite books and authors and to Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Douglas Hofstadter, who I learned of from Gardner, said “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, etc. etc.), 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.”

James Randi, who I learned of from Gardner, said, “That man was one of my giants, a very long-time friend of some 50 years or so. He was a delight, a very bright spot in my firmament, one to whom I could always turn with a question or an idea, with any strange notion I could invent, and with any complaint or comment I could come up with….He was such a good man, a productive and useful member of our society, and I can anticipate the international reaction to his passing. His books – so many of them – remain to remind us of his contributions to us all. His last one was dedicated to me, and I am just so proud of that fact, so very proud…It will take a while, but Martin would want me to get on with my life, so I will."

Richard Dawkins, who I learned of from Gardner, said, “Martin Gardner (1914-2010) was one of the great heroes of the American sceptical movement. He also helped generations to enjoy the fascination of mathematics, in his long-running 'Mathematical Games' column in Scientific American. During his last year I was privileged to visit him, in his retirement home in Norman, Oklahoma. He was old and frail, but immensely lively, and brimming with youthful intelligence and curiosity. His room was filled with puzzles and illusions, with which he delighted in teasing me.”

We have lost a bright light and he will be missed. The world is a better and wiser place because of him.

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