Martin Gardner, 95, revered author and 'Alice' expert, dies

Martin Gardner's popular column in Scientific American was known for its math puzzles. But the writer's curiosity wasn't limited to math.
Martin Gardner's popular column in Scientific American was known for its math puzzles. But the writer's curiosity wasn't limited to math. (Courtesy Of James Gardner)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

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 cause of death was not known.

A native of Tulsa, 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. The 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 by Mr. Gardner, one of 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 fortunetellers. Mr. Gardner later wrote a monthly column, "Notes of a Fringe Watcher," for the committee's journal, the Skeptical Inquirer.

Following his own fascinations, he wrote books to explain scientific phenomena including Einstein's relativity theory ("Relativity for the Million," 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 is said to drain 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."

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