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'Tadpole/Fish': As always, Martin Gardner is a great catch

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, October 22, 2009

WHEN YOU WERE A TADPOLE

AND I WAS A FISH

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,

In the Paleozoic time,

And side by side on the ebbing tide

We sprawled through the ooze and slime,

Or skittered with many a caudal flip

Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,

My heart was rife with the joy of life,

For I loved you even then.

In subsequent stanzas we follow the narrator and his beloved as they evolve into amphibians, ape-like mammals and early hominids. Their time-transcending love never alters:

And that was a million years ago,

In a time that no man knows;

Yet here tonight in the mellow light,

We sit at Delmonico's . . .

Then as we linger at luncheon here,

O'er many a dainty dish,

Let us drink anew to the time when you

Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish.

Gardner's essay on "Evolution" praises metrical rhyming verse and tells us what little is known about the poem's author, the turn-of-the-century journalist Langdon Smith. A similar but even longer article discusses the forgotten Ella Wheeler Wilcox, best known for the line "Laugh and the world laughs with you;/Weep and you weep alone." Astonishingly popular in her day, Wilcox used her verse to champion what was called "New Thought," a "feel good" and "get rich" religious movement of the early 20th century. Norman Vincent Peale and his "power of positive thinking" is a later offshoot.

In general, "When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish" might be called a Martin Gardner sampler, bringing together both new pieces and golden oldies. It includes the personal essays "Why I Am Not a Paranormalist" and "Why I Am Not an Atheist," as well as several mathematical articles (one on Fibonacci sequences), an explanation for why remarkable coincidences aren't so remarkable ("Was the Sinking of the Titanic Foretold?"), several scathing critiques of religious fundamentalism (see, in particular, the pieces on Ann Coulter, Frank Tipler and Oral Roberts's son, Richard), and enthusiastic introductions to L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" and "The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus" and to G.K. Chesterton's "Tales of the Long Bow" and "The Coloured Lands." The book ends with a defense of democratic socialism. Overall, Gardner's main theme is still the one he has sounded for going on 60 years: "Our nation is weakened when large numbers of citizens . . . are scientific illiterates."

If you're already addicted to Martin Gardner's plain prose, gentle, reasonable voice, exhaustive research and relentless logic, you will want to add this book to your collection. If that collection is like my own, it's already quite a large one. Perhaps only Dana Richards -- Gardner's bibliographer and a computer science professor at George Mason University -- knows just how many books and magazine articles this lively polymath has given the world since the 1930s, when he began to write as a student at the University of Chicago. New readers, however, may find some of the earlier books mentioned above to be better first introductions than the "scribblings" and "stray pieces" of "When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish."

In one essay here -- on Hilaire Belloc's critique of Darwinism -- Gardner mentions being 94 years old and residing in an assisted living facility in his home town of Norman, Okla. He's still writing. While Martin Gardner has always called himself "strictly a journalist," he should really be honored as one of this country's greatest cultural treasures. President Obama, are you listening?

Michael Dirda -- mdirda@gmail.com -- appears each Thursday in Style. Visit his online book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

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