Martin Gardner, prolific math and science writer, dies at 95

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010; 1:08 PM

Martin Gardner, 95, a journalist whose omnivorous curiosity gave rise to wide-ranging writings that popularized mathematics, explored theology and philosophy, debunked pseudoscience and dug into Lewis Carroll's beloved children's books with the gusto of an investigative reporter, died May 22 at a hospital in Norman, Okla.

His son, James Gardner, said the exact cause of death was not known.

A native of Tulsa, Okla., Mr. Gardner was writing stories and poems for a children's magazine in the 1950s when he submitted an article about hexaflexagons -- pieces of paper folded intricately to resemble, Mr. Gardner once said, "a budding flower" -- to Scientific American. Then-editor Dennis Flanagan was so taken with the piece that he hired Mr. Gardner to produce a regular column on recreational mathematics.

The resulting monthly feature, "Mathematical Games," ran from 1956 to 1981. It became one of Scientific American's most popular items, capturing the imagination of amateur and professional mathematicians and introducing a generation of young readers to the pleasures of problem-solving.

The sharp-witted column, packed with cultural references, humor and accessible logic puzzles instead of academic jargon, featured the mathematical concepts behind fractals, Chinese tangram puzzles, and the art of surrealist M.C. Escher. Widely read around the world, "Mathematical Games" made Mr. Gardner -- who never took a math class after high school -- the beloved grandfather of recreational mathematics and the inspiration for countless young people to consider careers in math and science.

"Beyond calculus, I am lost," he once said. "That was the secret of my column's success. It took me so long to understand what I was writing about that I knew how to write in a way most readers would understand."Math puzzles were just one part of Mr. Gardner's sprawling career.

Among more than 70 books Mr. Gardner, one his first, "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science," heralded a lifelong passion for discrediting scientific fraud and quackery. Deemed "unputdownable" by Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, "Fads and Fallacies" used calm logic to expose flat-earth theorists, flying saucers and believers in extrasensory perception.

In 1976, Mr. Gardner joined with Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and others in founding the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the group encourages rational investigation of everything from homeopathic remedies to fortune tellers. Mr. Gardner later wrote a monthly column, "Notes of a Fringe Watcher," for the committee'sjournal, the Skeptical Inquirer.

Following his own fascinations, he wrote books to explain scientific phenomena including Einstein's relativity theory ("Relativity for Millions," 1962) and oddities such as right- and left-handedness in mollusks and crystals and the bathtub vortex, in which water in a bathtub in the Northern hemisphere drains counterclockwise, while water in the Southern hemisphere drains clockwise ("The Ambidextrous Universe," 1964).

Mr. Gardner, a childhood fan of Frank L. Baum's "Wizard of Oz" books, used his inquisitiveness as a tool of literary criticism. In 1960, he published perhaps his most popular book, "The Annotated Alice," a line-by-line examination of the wordplay, satire and allusions in Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and its sequel, "Through the Looking-Glass."

Filling the margins of the original text with explanatory notes and compressed essays, Mr. Gardner used physics, psychology, history and math to illuminate the classic tale, offering two possible origins for the phrase "grin like a Cheshire Cat" and digging up weather records to show that July 4, 1862, the "golden afternoon" that Carroll described in the first lines of his book, had actually been "cool and rather wet."

The book "memorializes the meeting of two remarkable eccentric minds in a particular moment in intellectual history," wrote critic Adam Gopnik in the New York Times in 1999, upon the release of a new edition of "The Annotated Alice."

"Gardner has an old-fashioned, almost 19th-century, Oliver Wendell Holmes kind of American mind -- self-educated, opinionated, cranky and utterly unafraid of embarrassment."

Mr. Gardner used a similar technique to annotate other classics, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge's long poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and E.L. Thayer's baseball poem "Casey at the Bat."

In interviews, Mr. Gardner said that among his favorite books was "The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener" (1983), a collection of essays about issues including faith, prayer, evil and immortality. Faith was also the subject of his 1973 semi-autobiographical novel, "The Flight of Peter Fromm," in which the title character and his atheist professor of divinity grapple for decades with questions about God.

"This is a brilliantly illuminating metaphysical novel that employs ideas as adversaries and translates them into human dilemmas," wrote Martin Levin in New York Times review. "Can a novel whose action is essentially cerebral be exciting? Yes indeed -- if the novelist is as engaged by the history of ideas as is Gardner."

Writing for Humpty Dumpty

Martin Gardner was born Oct. 21, 1914, in Tulsa, where his father owned a small oil business. The younger Gardner grew up playing chess, practicing magic tricks and reading the "Wizard of Oz" series, which he later satirized in the 1998 novel "Visitors From Oz: the Wild Adventures of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman."

He graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in philosophy in 1936, then worked as a journalist and public relations man before serving during World War II as a Navy yeoman aboard a destroyer escort.

He launched a post-war freelance writing career with the publication in Esquire magazine of a story called "The Horse on the Escalator," a tragically comic tale about a man who collected jokes about horses. Several years later, he found steady work in New York at Humpty Dumpty, a children's magazine. Each month for eight years, he wrote a short story and a poem offering moral advice, some of which were later collected in "Never Make Fun of a Turtle, My Son" (1969).

His wife, the former Charlotte Greenwald, died in 2000 after 48 years of marriage. In addition to his son James, of Norman, survivors include another son, Tom Gardner of Asheville, N.C.; and three grandchildren.

Over the years, Mr. Gardner earned a devoted following and respect from such diverse thinkers as the poet W.H. Auden, science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky, who once wrote, "Martin Gardner's contribution to contemporary intellectual culture is unique -- in its range, its insight, and understanding of hard questions that matter."

The writer's admirers have gathered every two years since 1993 for a conference called "Gathering for Gardner." Begun as a tribute, the event features presentations by magicians, mathematicians and puzzle-lovers of every stripe.

"Many have tried to emulate him," mathematician Ronald Graham said of Mr. Gardner in 2009. "No one has succeeded."

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