Monday, February 03, 2014

Contribute to the Martin Gardner Centennial

Dana Richards emailed us about a place to write how Martin Gardner influenced you. You can leave such comments here.  I left a comment there, but I expand it for this blog entry.

When I got interested in mathematics in high school I went to the public library looking for math books (this was before Al Gore invented the internet). I found some books by Martin Gardner and began reading them. They were just right for the level of math I was on at the time. My very first proof that I read on my own (outside of a class) was in those books- the proof that (in the terminology I use now) a graph is Eulerian iff every vertex has even degree.

I  learned about SOMA cubes (I bought a set and did every puzzle in the book in about 2 days.This is the only evidence that as a kid I was good at math). I learned the unexpected hanging paradox which confused me then (and still does). I learned the hercules-hydra game and other games that go on for a LOOOOOOOOOONG time. They are related to things in logic. I also learned about NIM games which I have used as a starting point for several student projects.

There have been some conferences in his honors, the Gathering-for-Gardner. I had the pleasure of reviewing some of the books from it. (My review is here.) These articles show that while his work was recreational this is not a well defined term- some if relates to very important and deep mathematics, and some deep math has arisen from such problems. The books also have articles about Gardner the Magician.

In  the 2000's some of his books were reprinted and I was asked to review them for my SIGACT News book review column.  I took this opp to do a joint review of several math recreational books. What a delight to reread his books and contrast them to those of his successors. And I STILL learned some math that I didn't know from them. (My review is here.)

Shortly before a column appears I always email the authors-of-books, authors-of-reviews, and publishers a first draft of my column. His publisher told me that he didn't use email (he was in his 90's!) so I postal mailed him my review. He read it, corrected some typos, but otherwise was quite happy with the review. He died a few months later. I was happy to have some contact, albeit short, with the man who helped keep me interested in math in high school and beyond.


  1. Now, now. Al Gore didn't say he invented the Internet. He said he "took the initiative in creating the Internet" which to some people is a very different thing for some reason.

  2. Martin Gardner's essays are treasured by many (including me) because they show us, not only beautiful mathematical theorems and principles, but also how to think about mathematical theorems and principles (and as with mathematics, so with theology: Gardner's The Flight of Peter Fromm teaches not only theology, but also how to think about theology).

    Another math-centric essay that provides a similar dual-illumination to Martin Gardner's (as it seems to me) is Colin McLarty's "The last mathematician from Hilbert's Gottingen: Saunders Mac Lane as philosopher of mathematics" (2007), which in turn touches upon the same themes as McLarty's recent post on Grothendieck's work here on Computational Complexity.

    Conclusion  Martin Gardner's works prepare us to read works by and/or about Alexander Grothendieck, Saunders Mac Lane, and Bill Thurston; works that seek to illuminate not only mathematical results, but also various avenues for us to think about those results.

    And not just mathematics, but science, medicine, engineering, and even philosophy too … these mathematical themes have universal value.

  3. Since this is about Martin Gardner, it is difficult for me to pass. In my mind, Martin Gardner is a huge figure -- one who can inspire hopes.

    As a computer science undergraduate at an ordinary institute in India, I had little to no exposure of the beauty of discrete mathematics. Moreover, the way we were taught programming did not help either. I lost interest in the subject and felt like I was just drifted through life.

    And then one fine in a public library, I discovered the colossal book of mathematics by Gardner. The first chapter on coconut division between men contained a simple to state puzzle with a mind bending solution. Till this day, it remains the only mathematical proof after reading which my hairs stood up.

    I dived head first into other books by Gardner I could lay my hands on. Gardner's books inspired me to learn more math than what was covered at our institute and soon I finished a text on Elementary number theory and felt comfortable going through some more mathematical works (mostly of combinatorial flavor).

    Thereafter, I read one account on Turing Machines by Gardner. While I do not recall the details of that particular account, but it inspired in me a love for theoretical computer science. Fast forward to 2013 last year, I started my PhD in theory and I can now feel comfortable saying that there is something I am passionate about -- I am not saying I am good at it; there is just something I am passionate about and that happened only because I chanced upon a book by Gardner.