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Book review: 'When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish' by Martin Gardner

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, October 22, 2009



And Other Speculations

About This and That

By Martin Gardner

Hill and Wang. 246 pp. $26

On Saturdays when I was a boy of 14 or 15, it was my habit to ride my red Roadmaster bicycle to the various thrift shops in my home town. One afternoon, at Clarice's Values, I unearthed a beat-up paperback of Martin Gardner's "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science," a collection of essays debunking crank beliefs and pseudoscientific quackery, with wonderful chapters about flying saucers, the hollow Earth, ESP and Atlantis. The book, Gardner's second, was originally published in 1952 under the title "In the Name of Science." I probably read it around 1962 and found it -- as newspaper critics of that era were wont to say -- unputdownable.

In 1981 as a young staffer at The Washington Post Book World, I reviewed Gardner's "Science: Good, Bad and Bogus," a kind of sequel to "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science," and found it . . . unputdownable. A few years later, in 1989, I wrote about "Gardner's Whys & Wherefores," a volume that opened with appreciations of wonderful, if slightly unfashionable, writers such as G.K. Chesterton, Lord Dunsany and H.G. Wells. I wrote at much greater length in 1996 about Gardner's so-called "collected essays" -- really just a minuscule selection -- gathered together as the nearly 600-page compendium "The Night Is Large." There I called its author our most eminent man of letters and numbers.

By that last word I was alluding to Gardner's celebrated Scientific American columns devoted to mathematical games and recreations. Written over the course of 25 years, these are currently being repackaged by Cambridge University Press as "The New Martin Gardner Mathematical Library"; the most recent volume, No. 3 of a planned 15, is titled "Sphere Packing, Lewis Carroll and Reversi." Amazingly, Gardner is largely self-taught in mathematics.

I give all this personalia just to underscore that I've been an awestruck Martin Gardner fan my entire life -- but then I'm in very good company. Gardner's admirers have included Arthur C. Clarke, W.H. Auden (who particularly cherished "The Ambidextrous Universe," a study of symmetry and asymmetry), Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Douglas Hofstadter and the entire French literary group called the Oulipo (the Workshop for Potential Literature). Of course, Gardner is particularly revered -- by all kinds of people -- for his most famous book: "The Annotated 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking-Glass' " (later complemented or replaced by "More Annotated Alice" and "The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition"). That first book virtually launched the entire mini-genre of "annotated" classics, among which are Gardner's own "Annotated 'Casey at the Bat' " and "Annotated 'Night Before Christmas.' "

And that's still not all. This essayist and skeptical inquirer has also written about magic, philosophy, religion and poetry. His Dover paperback titled "Best Remembered Poems" -- I keep a copy on my nightstand -- gathers the sort of old-fashioned sentimental verse that begs to be recited aloud. The anthology includes poems like "Evolution," whose virtues Gardner extols in one of the essays collected in this latest volume of his "speculations about this and that." He tells us that he once heard the great magician Harry Blackstone recite "Evolution" in its entirety at a dinner party:

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish,

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