Martin Gardner, 1914 – 2010

By Phil Plait | May 22, 2010 6:33 pm

I am very sad to write that Martin Gardner, a skeptical giant and genius by any standard, died today in Tulsa Norman, Oklahoma.

Martin_GardnerWikipedia has a list of his remarkable achievements. He was a lifelong friend of James Randi, who has written a brief statement at the JREF page. I’ve heard Randi tell many a tale about him. His love for Martin was worn on his sleeve.

[Update (23 May 2010): Richard Dawkins wrote up his thoughts, and Scientific American, which published a column by Martin for more than three decades, put up a post as well.]

I never met Martin, but he influenced my life anyway. I don’t know exactly how old I was, but I think I was in sixth grade when I found a copy of one of his many books filled with brain teasers and math puzzles. I’ve always loved puzzles, but Martin’s books showed me how to think around some problems, how to take that needed step to the side to see the solution lying beyond… and more importantly, trained me how to find the path to that solution.

Very few people wake up one day seeing the world rationally; it’s a series of steps that takes you there. Eventually you look around and realize it, and when you look behind you you see the footsteps that brought you to that place. Off in the distance, well behind me, but at a critical point in my life, I can see where Martin gave me a nudge. It was a small push, to be sure, just a gentle poke, but with time it acquired vast leverage.

The skeptic community mourns the loss of one of our giants, but we know we’re all better off for the time we had him here.

Picture credit: Wikipedia and Konrad Jacobs, used under a Creative Commons license.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Skepticism

Comments (94)

  1. Mike

    I remember reading “Aha! Insight” when I was a kid. Still have it. It’s a great book, and really did help me with my creative thinking skills.

  2. Amy Gardner

    He actually died in Norman, OK, where he had lived for the past 8 years. He will be missed.

  3. Pierre

    I always thoroughly enjoyed his column in Scientific American when
    I was a teenager. And I think his annotations in “The Annotated Alice”
    are more interesting than the book themselves (it’s an annotated
    version of the two Alice in Wonderland books, for those who don’t
    know it).

  4. Zucchi

    I loved his puzzles, and his “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science” is a classic.

  5. Jesús Pineda

    It’s so sad, as with many in the skeptical community it was his books which showed me that the way I looked at the world had a name: Rational Skepticism and that I wasn’t alone.

    Had it not been for Gardner’s “Did Adam and Eve have navels?” I wouldn’t be the person I am today, I would have never joined the local Venezuelan skeptics’ society and I wouldn’t have met many good and dear friends. He helped me think clearly and gave a sharper aim to my love for science.

    Even though I never met him, I thank him… He will be truly missed.

  6. Brown

    I love mathematics. If I did not love mathematics, I would not be where I am today. I am (among other things) an Electrical Engineer.

    Martin Gardner, more than any other human being, taught me to love mathematics. He gave me a deep appreciation of the beauty of numbers and logic. I can think of no writer who has had a greater influence on my life.

    Here’s to a life well lived, and a body of work that will last for centuries.

  7. Such a loss. I am happy we have a “new guard” of course, but … what a loss. It’s funny how much the BA’s tangential story of Martin Gardner looks like my story.

  8. Gardner’s Aha! Gotcha! (1982), a book of paradoxes, impossible objects, and thought experiments totally blew my brain when I was about 10. He expanded my mind, and I have been trying to fill it ever since. Thanks, Martin!

    HJ

  9. Tom

    Every time I solve a problem with critical thinking, I have Gardner to thank. He’ll be missed, but I try to pass on what I learned from people like him to my boys….and then they’ll thank him too.

  10. OMFG!!!!

    I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise a Martin Gardner has long been the Abe Vigoda of skepticism (“You mean that guy is still alive?”) But I’m still saddened by his loss, just as I was sad to see him go from Scientific American (Okay, his death is sadder).

    Martin Gardner turned me o to game theory. He turned me on to Gaia. And he turned me on to Richard Dawkins. The first time I ever heard of this character named Richard Dawkins was when a college buddy of mine handed me a Martin Gardner article commemorating the 10th anniversary of The Selfish Gene. The review was so on target and so “down my alley” that I went out and bought the book the next day. And that recommendation alone wins him a special place in my heart.

    I will miss MG.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    That is a loss for humanity.

    But Gardner was a so-so skeptic, that indulged in magical dualist thinking such as theism and platonism. He reminds me of Michael Shermer, which also liked the column format but can’t let go of his belief in belief.

  12. Foster Disbelief

    I remember finding a copy of Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science in my local library about a year after I left Wicca. It was the second piece of skeptical writing that I ever read, and to him I owe a great intellectual debt. He will be missed.

  13. Bret

    Humpty Dumpty Magazine! I had forgotten!

  14. MKR

    “Very few people wake up one day seeing the world rationally; it’s a series of steps that takes you there. Eventually you look around and realize it, and when you look behind you you see the footsteps that brought you to that place.”

    Well said, Phil; but I would say: it is an unending series of steps!

    Why are people who never knew the man professing such grief at the death of a man who published dozens of worthy books in a life spanning almost 100 years? I am only grateful to have had so much from him!

  15. Brian

    I knew of Martin Gardner as a child, because of some of his puzzle books. In college I got to discover him all over again, as I found his Mathematical Games collections, and I slowly discovered how many things in my past (flexagons, the Soma cube, the Game of Life) he had been instrumental in popularizing.

    I loved so much of his writing and deeply envied the life he led. The world is so much richer for his having lived in it.

  16. Derdesh

    In memoriam, I dug up my copy of The Annotated Alice. Like Pierre, I think Gardner’s research and interpretation add multiple dimensions to any reading of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

    If you can find a copy, it is well worth it. I purchased mine in Portland’s Powell’s bookstore for (so the inscribed price tells me) $6.95, many years ago.

    From the introduction:
    “Let it be said at once that there is something preposterous about an annotated Alice. Writing in 1932, on the hundred-year anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s birth, Gilbert K. Chesterson voiced his “dreadful fear” that Alice’s story had already fallen under the heavy hands of the scholars and was becoming “cold and monumental like a classic tomb.”

    Gardner’s version of Carroll’s classic demonstrates that Alice’s adventures are ongoing; that the Reverend Dodgson’s imaginings are useful metaphors for the cutting edge of science today.

    Gardner was a relentless popularizer of mathematics and science. His article in Scientific American in 1970 exposed Conway’s game of life to the world at large. In more recent years, false rumors of his death prompted the hosts of NPR’s “Car Talk” to eulogize him, only to have him contradict those rumors and come back suggesting a “puzzler” for their audience to solve.

    There exists a tenuous philosophical link from Bertrand Russell to Martin Gardner, I wonder where it will continue from him?

    I seem to have written an obituary. So be it.

  17. Vanessa

    Worn copies of the first two volumes of SA’s Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions are on their fourth generation in my family. He called Sam Lloyd the “greatest puzzlist” and dedicated the first volume to Pauline Baker Perry, of Tulsa High School.

    His ability to guide us through the endless labyrinth is unsurpassed.

  18. DLC

    I remember Gardner well. a great fellow. He will be missed.

  19. MrX_TLO

    His work has brought me many hours of enjoyable contemplation and conversation over the years and continues to do so.

  20. Arthur Taylor

    I never heard of him, but any friend of The Amazing Randi…

    But I love the way Skeptics deal with death. We don’t tell lies like, “He’s in a good place now” or “We’ll be reunited soon enough.”

    We say “The world was a better place for them” or “We’re better off for the time we had.”

    We don’t “pass on”. We die.

    I find that oddly moving.

  21. Spanish Skeptick

    From Spain….

    http://esepuntoazulpalido.blogspot.com/

    Thank you, Martin. Goodbye master.

  22. Peter Macinnis

    The world is indeed a better place for me, thanks to Martin Gardner, through his books my guide and companion for almost fifty years. He never knew it, but I did, and I am sure he left me a better place as well.

  23. Kaisa

    The best Math writer ever!
    At least all Math teachers should read his books …and all people who’d like use use their brains.

  24. Tony Morton

    Like many, I never met Gardner but I will miss him. Definitely a big influence on my life.

  25. Szwagier

    I’m another one of the many who found Gardner through his mathematical games and puzzles books and then ‘Fads and Fallacies’, alongside John Sladek’s ‘New Apocrypha’ in the ’70s. Great man, great loss.

  26. a great man is no more.

  27. While I have had some issues with Martin Gardener as a skeptic, I loved his “Annotated Alice”. This is the version of Alice in Wonderland that I recommend for anyone thinking of buying the book. I believe I have a collection of essays by him that includes other literary investigations, including James Joyce’s Ulysses. (He pointed out a lot of the dirty jokes in it.)

  28. Eidolon

    I have to join the “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science” brigade. As a kid, that was the first time I learned that all was not what it claimed to be and to question things. I discovered it was at the core of the science I love.

    BTW – also works well for the ads that appear on this site.

  29. RJD

    Now all his questions are answered.

  30. John

    Martin Gardner lives on in the minds of the countless people who have enjoyed and those who will discover and enjoy his wit and insight. The man might be gone, but his legacy will remain forever. In that spirit, we won’t miss him … he’s here today on so many bookshelves! Thank you, Martin! We’re all indebted.

  31. Conor Magee

    Someone who enriched the world.

    RIP

  32. Ewilliams

    He was a superb thinker and a great entertainer. Thanks to him.

  33. ARJ

    An American gem and just as great an essayist as a mathematical puzzler (and as pointed out above, also a Platonist and a deist, or more specifically a fideist, because he understood there is potentially more to life than empiricism, which is ultimately just another belief).

  34. Joe Shuster

    Gardner’s contributions to Scientific American were very inspiring to me. One of the best things you can say about a writer is that “he made me think”. I’m sure my some of my technical problem solving skills were honed by reading his writing.

    I always thought he might enjoy a distinctive obituary if the “circumstances surrounding his death were puzzling”. But I don’t know if he combined a sense of humor with a sense of mortality.

    We need more like him.

  35. SLC

    The really sad part of this is that all too many of the fads and fallacies that Mr. Gardner wrote about in his book of the same name are still with us some 58 years later (e.g. homeopathy, creationism).

  36. Gary Ansorge

    The whole question of Death is intimately correlated with our perception of time and in physics, that may turn out to be a perceptual fiction, since relativity has no preferred temporal direction and quantum mechanics works quite well w/o time at all. Thus we may actually live in a reality in which nothing can be said to be non-existant, including all those who have “died”. They still exist. We just can’t interact with them and that’s our problem, not theirs.

    So to all those I can’t interact with I have this to say; rock on and thanks for all the fish.

    GAry 7

  37. Andrew Wallace

    Very sad – I chose his book “Wheels, Life, and Other Mathematical Amusements” as a school prize back in the 80, and it really got me interested in Maths and computing; I did my bachelors in Maths and Masters in computing, in so small part he influenced me me for years.

  38. I was privileged to meet Martin on a few occasions and even worked with him once on a project. He was a delightful man and his wife Charlotte was a sweetheart. His long and productive life deserves celebration.

  39. DT

    His book “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener” was an eye opener to me. It showed me you don’t have to be a rigid dogmatist like Richard Dawkins or the Pope to love truth. That reality was more complex than pure intellect could handle. That heresy and paradox are not a bad things. And that was liberating.

  40. I enjoyed his book, Codes, Ciphers & Secret Writing, as well as his occasional contributions to Skeptical Inquirer. I haven’t taken a look at many of his numerous puzzles, yet, but I always hear wonderful things about them. Best wishes to all of his friends and family.

  41. A sad loss, but a fantastically valuable, long, interesting life.

  42. A founding member of the International Wizard of Oz Club, too. Gardner’s diverse interests were extraordinary. Visitors From Oz might have been his last book….

  43. Jeffrey Davis

    I don’t know how much you could call Gardner a skeptic. My memory isn’t the best but I’m pretty sure that Gardner took Gary Wills to task over some theological point that he felt that Wills was evading. At that point (maybe 15-20 years ago) Gardner was a very orthodox Roman Catholic. Papal infallibility. The immaculate conception of Mary. The physical assumption of Mary into heaven. The whole kit-n-kaboodle of Catholic weirdness. He may have been skeptical of this or that, but skepticism wasn’t his foundation belief.

  44. Truely a great loss. I was a fan of his writting for over 40 years. He taught me many techniques for solving problems. And no one was able to replace him when he retired from writting the “Mathematical Games” column at Scientific American.

  45. Childermass

    Jeffrey Davis (#48),

    Gardner was never a Roman Catholic. He was a fundamentalist as a child though gave it up in college. He rejected revealed religion decades before most of the readers of this blog where born.

    You are either confusing him with someone else or misunderstood what he said.

  46. RBH

    Damn. I had the good fortune to meet Martin at the college graduation of his son, who I had in a class. He was a gracious man, and one of my proudest achievements was to have been mentioned in passing in one of his columns in SciAm. R.I.P., Martin.

  47. Ed Seedhouse

    I feel this loss nearly as strongly as I felt when Asimov left us. Asimov, then Sagan, and now Gardner. I can only hope that Randi outlives me.

  48. Childermass

    #24: “I never heard of him, but any friend of The Amazing Randi…

    But I love the way Skeptics deal with death. We don’t tell lies like, “He’s in a good place now” or “We’ll be reunited soon enough.” ”

    Though Martin Gardner did believe in survival of death though he wrote one of the classics of debunking pseudoscience, was a columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer, etc.

  49. Back in 2003 when I was publishing Nicholas Williams’ Irish translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I relied on Gardner’s Annotated Alice as a definitive text against which to proof the translation—and I took Antonina Krass’ book design of the 2000 edition as the inspiration for the design of the Irish book. Fifteen Alice books later I’m still following that template. To thank Martin I sent him nine of my volumes in November 2009, and had a very nice letter from him in December.

    He will be missed indeed. But he will live on in his books.

    Om mani padme hum.

  50. SimonSays

    “I am persuaded that the truth about immortality is as far beyond our grasp as the ideas in this book are beyond the grasp of a glowworm. I believe that no model we can frame does justice to the truth. Let us leave these details to our Creator. As John Hick has said “We must each wait and see-or, it may be, wait and not see!” By faith, I hope and believe that you and I will not disappear forever when we die; that will find ourselves “alive” in a way that will be superior to anything we can now imagine.”

    -Martin Gardner, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener

    He is now so alive.

  51. ppb

    I was a huge fan of his ever since I picked up my first Scientific American. I am glad he had such a long and productive life. He left a great legacy behind in his writings. I will miss him.

  52. At first he was my muse, then mentor and ultimately a friend. Martin was always willing to chat on the phone about magic, magic personalities, puzzles, philosophy and wide ranging sundry topics. I thanked him in person in Asheville and now in bytes for the gift of his personal collection of ‘informal science’ books, just before he moved to Norman, OK. He was so gracious that he thanked me for removing the burden of carrying the books, in fact a treasure trove of information, to his new home. I wish him peaceful, exciting, puzzling and magical adventures, wherever he ends up, if any place at all. I realize now that there is an afterlife, though we often discussed the (im)possibility of such. He will live on in our memories.

  53. Maria

    Like many who have already posted, I will always be grateful to Martin Gardner for turning me on to math. My beloved collection of Gardner’s books is well-worn, and now my children are starting to appreciate it. And fans, do not miss Gardner’s short story “The No-Sided Professor,” which was published in Clifton Fadiman’s _Fantasia Mathematica_. He will be missed!

  54. The error in #48 — by Jeffrey Davis — that Martin was a Catholic and accepted all the trappings that the belief involves, cannot go unchallenged, and I thank Childermass. Nothing could be any more incorrect. Yes, Martin was a fideist, and he defended that belief in his usual calm, direct fashion. When I questioned him on the subject he told me that he had no really good evidence to support his belief, but that it simply made him feel better to adopt it. He said that I — and other curmudgeons — had far better evidence for our convictions, but that he just felt more secure in his acceptance. He admitted — easily — that he could not convincingly argue his case… That was Martin, and I love him for being Martin. He’ll always be with me, though I can no longer pick up the phone and chat with him or sit among his Eschers in Norman and enjoy just having a few laughs with him…

    But don’t insult his memory by suggesting that he accepted virgin birth in our species, or any degree of Papal inerrancy, please.

    And thank you for your kind words about our giant, Phil.

  55. Your Name Here

    I’ve only got one of his books (Hexaflexagons and Other Mathematical Diversions: The First Scientific American Book of Puzzles and Games), but it has to be one of the best books I’ve ever read.

    Mourning a great man, but the community fights on.

  56. Brian

    #62: That’s a great place to start, though! You should pick to the 2nd Scientific American Book of Puzzles and Games, and then just keep going …

  57. Gene

    He made me the person I am. I still have half a dozen of his entertaining math books in Russian, which are among my favorite books. It was amazing knowing that he’s alive all these years, and a great loss now. I hope to meet him in heaven :-)

  58. Jeffrey Davis

    I just looked at the Wiki entry for Wills, and Gardner did indeed comment upon Wills Catholicism. (The Strange Case of Gary Wills).

    Why would he have questioned Wills’s orthodoxy if it were simply an academic point rather than a doctrinal one? Others obviously knew Gardener better, but the essay in question was an odd one. Thank you for the correction.

  59. Crudely Wrott

    Gardner is one of the giants upon whose shoulders I stand. From such privileged vantage the horizon recedes, revealing landscapes of wonder and insight.

    I am increased by his life.

  60. I have posted a transcript of a long 1979 interview with Martin Gardner here.

  61. Chris Winter

    I was a great fan of Mathematical Games when Gardner ran it in the old Scientific American, and I loved reading about Irving Joshua Matrix. See here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irving_Joshua_Matrix

    And Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science is invaluable.

    Martin Gardner was a man of profound talent. The world is diminished.

  62. Chris Winter

    David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things had a feature devoted to Martin Gardner.

    Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiAU3IWQAuE

  63. Brian

    Jeffrey Davis (#66):

    Perhaps, being unfamiliar with Gardner’s background, you unconsciously filled in his motives when you read the essay. But as Gardner said regarding that essay:

    Apparently I, a philosophical theist unattached to any organized religion, take the Catholic faith more seriously than Wills. It is either what it claims to be, God’s one true revelation to humanity, or it isn’t.

    If anyone is curious, the essay reprinted in “Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?” (along with the addendum that is the source of my quote). By chance you can actually view the whole thing (it’s short) on Google Books:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=z9jH9mYiO5IC&pg=PA85&lpg=PA85&dq=the+strange+case+of+gary+wills&source=bl&ots=7GAtBqUVTy&sig=_j_KGrY0-APR8k4AFodQugCvdNc&hl=en&ei=RMb5S4z5ApLIMsyf4ZcF&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CCAQ6AEwAQ

  64. Allen

    We can take comfort in the fact that energy and matter cannot be destroyed, so while he may be dead, he’s not gone forever.

  65. lookylou

    This is indeed a great loss. I always enjoyed Mr. Gardner’s columns in Sci. Am. (back when that magazine was still respectable). @Torbjörn Larsson That Gardner wasn’t a true “skeptic” in the limited modern sense of that word is one of the reasons why I enjoyed his work. He was a polymath, much like Asimov, and like Asimov (and Sagan) one of the great populizers of science and math. Unlike many of those who call themsevles skeptics today, as brilliant as
    Gardner was, he never assumed he knew more about a given field than people who spent their entire lives in that field (though oftentimes, he actually did).

  66. I always thoroughly enjoyed his column in Scientific American when
    I was a teenager. And I think his annotations in “The Annotated Alice”
    are more interesting than the book themselves (it’s an annotated
    version of the two Alice in Wonderland books, for those who don’t
    know it).

    Indeed. He also annotated Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark

  67. From Gardner’s book Whys in his chapter on immortality:

    Lord, remember me! If God is the creator and sustainer of the universe, if every wave and particle is what it is, does what it does, because God remembers it, then we exist now because God remembers us. And if God remembers us after we die, we may continue to exist. That is all a theist need say to establish in his or her heart the possibility of immortality.

    Now I’m not sure about Gardner being a true God skeptic…

  68. Anthony Abbot

    Adieu to a genius who inspired my love of maths and my fascination with the beauty of the mathematical world. As I write this I am fondly looking at my shelf of his books – still incomplete – that I own and have collected over the last few decades. Farewell and thank you Martin for sharing your insights with us all.

  69. Roy Crawford

    Mr. Gardner was in his early ’80′s when I first met him, but I always enjoyed how much he acted like a kid when he showed off his magic tricks. The first time I had dinner with him and Charlotte, he stopped in the middle of the conversation, explained that he had a problem with too much pressure in one eye that he needed to relieve, and that he would cover his eye with one hand while he did so as not to freak us out. So, he covered an eye, stuck a fork under the hand, and dug around behind it until white liquid started running down his cheek. Then he laughed, lowered his hand, and showed us one of those little containers of coffee cream he had punctured with the fork. How many of you have seen him do this?

  70. He was a good man. These words comfort me when friends pass away:

    “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

    ——

    Mark Twain

  71. MJ

    Like all of us here, I always admired Mr. Gardner. I never really used any of his effects because they had that certain stench of math. They didn’t seem at all magical.

    Well, I’ve been working with an effect he created that was recently re-published in one of the magic magazines. It’s a wonderful “puzzle,’ while not being exactly magic.

    I have shown it to seven (maybe eight) middle school and high school math teachers. Only one has been able to give me a somewhat reasonable explaination of why it works EVERY TIME!

    This guy was really brilliant. He was a legend. We will miss him, even if many of us have no idea who he was. He left a stamp on our civilization that will never be erased.

    -MJ

  72. bhesper

    After having read his ‘Fads & Fallacies In The Name Of Science’, and his ‘Science Good, Bad & Bogus’, I knew Martin Gardner belonged to the best specimens of mankind.
    Together with people like Bertrand Russell, James Randi and Richard Dawkins he shaped my way of thinking and outlook on this world.
    I consider myself really blessed to have read his great works on mathematics, science and the universe.
    One of my great ‘teachers’, and examples of what man can be has gone. I will surely remember and reread him for the rest of my life.
    bhe

  73. fernando

    When I read Martin Garner’s ‘Science Good, Bad & Bogus’ I felt I was not alone. Most of us start surrounded by a non scientific, non skeptical and Bogus universe… there was Martin saying ‘humbug’ in his special manner, and giving us a fresh start.

  74. My lifelong love of learning and performing magic tricks can be traced to reading one of Mr. Gardner’s Scientific American columns decades ago, so he had a huge influence on my life and thinking. I reread his “Fads & Fallacies In the Name of Science” every couple of years, not just for the information but for his wonderful wit. Thanks to Mr. Gardner, I have a fun and fascinating hobby as well as a healthy skepticism about all things pseudo. He will be sorely missed.

  75. Lewisgk

    He was a giant… just a giant intellectual. I remember growing up waiting each month for his column in Scientific American. He was a very strong influence. I have most of his books starting with The First Scientific American Book of Puzzles and Games 1959. I marveled at his breadth of knowledge. He taught me how to think. He was the force that guided me through Chemical Engineering into Solid State physics and materials science. Martin Gardner also showed the beauty of reason and the beauty of our Universe without the need for magic, fairy tales, and witchcraft. I never met him. I will never forget him. A great loss.

  76. Parson Smith

    Martin was a wonderful man. He will be sorely missed.

  77. Tim Moyer

    I loved Aha! Gotcha! It’s a great book.

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