Monday, May 24, 2010

Martin Gardner: 1914-2010

Martin Gardner, who wrote about mathematical puzzles, philosophy, magic tricks, Lewis Carroll and charlatans pitching their improbable theories of paranormal phenomena, died last Saturday at the age of 95.
As the
New York Times obituary reports, Gardner had an impressive fan club:
W. H. Auden, Arthur C. Clarke, Jacob Bronowski, Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan were admirers of Mr. Gardner. Vladimir Nabokov mentioned him in his novel “Ada” as “an invented philosopher.”
...
Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist, called Mr. Gardner “the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surround us.”
Gardner was incapable of writing a fuzzy sentence. In an essay titled "Computers Near the Threshold," found in his collection, The Night Is Large, he makes a clear and compelling case against the view that mathematics is just a human construct:
As I have said before, if two dinosaurs met two others in a forest clearing, there would have been four dinosaurs there—even though the beasts were too stupid to count and there were no humans around to watch. I believe that a large integer is prime before mathematicians prove it prime. I believe that the Andromeda galaxy had a spiral structure before humans arose on Earth to call it a spiral.
Gardner's clear prose is evidence of clear thinking. Douglass Hofstadter, who took over Gardner's space in Scientific American, describes his first encounter with Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Gardner's acerbic critique of pseudoscience:
This "Martin Gardner" person was wielding common sense as a surgeon wields a knife—and occasionally twisting the knife with glee. It was probably the first time I had realized that systematic and critical thinking could extend beyond such precise domains as math and physics, and could demolish ideas in far hazier fields with great power.
Martin Gardner will be remembered for many years to come; he even had an asteroid named after him. Presumably the asteroid will obey the laws of mathematics long after Martin Gardner is forgotten and humans have stopped calculating its orbit.
Photo: Wikipedia

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