The Corner

Martin Gardner, R.I.P.

In 1977 I was living and working in New York’s Westchester County, and was friendly with a family that included a bright 13-year-old boy. Helping this lad with his math homework one evening, I told him about the digits of π and the various efforts to compute them to large numbers of decimal places. The lad was interested, and wanted to see the results of such a computation. This was of course long before the Internet, where one can now look such things up with a few keystrokes. I remembered having seen a computation to 100,000 decimal places printed up in a mathematical journal some years before, but couldn’t recall which journal.

Pondering the matter at work the next day, I thought I would ask Martin Gardner, who I knew lived in Ossining, a couple of towns away. I’d been reading Gardner’s books and columns since my own teens, but had never met him or spoken to him. He, of course, did not know me from Adam.

I called Enquiries and got a number for Gardner, M. in Ossining. I dialed it. Martin himself picked up. I briefly introduced myself and explained the problem. “Yes,” he said, “I recall that paper. It was Shanks and somebody. Shanks – funny that, eh?** Hang on, I have a reference somewhere, but I’ll have to go upstairs for it…” He was back a couple of minutes later and gave me the reference. In the city the following weekend I called in on the math library at Columbia and photocopied the paper for my young friend. (It is now, like everything else, on the Internet.)

A small act of kindness to a perfect stranger, but the kind of thing that sticks in the mind. After that I was even more assiduous in seeking out Martin’s books and columns on mathematics, though not until last year did I read his fictionalized autobiography (which is mostly about religion). When I wandered into book reviewing, I took every chance I could get to review, or at least mention, one of Martin’s books: here, here, here, here, …

From the second those reviews, written when I still owed allegiance to H.M. Elizabeth II:

I find it difficult to speak temperately about Martin Gardner because I owe him so much. As a child in England, my keenest intellectual pleasure was reading Gardner’s monthly “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American. Along with a handful of books like Kasner and Newman’s Mathematics and the Imagination and George Gamow’s One Two Three Infinity, Gardner’s columns opened for me the doors of mathematics, leading me forward to a lifetime of pleasure and instruction from that most elegant and challenging of all disciplines. Later I read Gardner’s book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, which, along with its British equivalent, Patrick Moore’s Can You Speak Venusian? inoculated me for ever against any temptation to waste my time and money believing in astrology, homeopathy, spoon-bending, mind-reading, UFOs, acupuncture, or any other kind of pseudoscientific flapdoodle.

I am, of course, not alone in my debt to this wonderful man. Nobody alive has done more than Gardner to spread the understanding and appreciation of mathematics, and to dispel superstition. Nobody has worked harder or more steadily to defend and enlarge this little firelit clearing we hold in the dark chittering forest of Unreason. If Gardner were British, he would long since have been the recipient of one of our national honors – a Commander of the British Empire, perhaps, or even, like Patrick Moore, a knight. It is a pity the United States has no parallel system. Egalitarianism can be taken too far. In that spirit of whimsy that Gardner himself has often amused us with, I hereby, in loco Reginae, award him the rank he has earned. For the duration of this review I shall, as a mark of sincere respect, and with – I am sure it is clear – no facetious intent, refer to him as Sir Martin…

When I came to try my own hand at writing a pop-math book, my publisher asked me to try to get blurbs from “mathematicians whose names are well-known to the general public.” That, I told them, is a set with a very small cardinal number. They said to just do my best. I naturally thought of Martin, and wrote him to ask for a blurb. I mentioned, as diffidently as I could, that I had given friendly reviews to a couple of his own books.

I received a very touching letter in reply. Martin’s wife had died a couple of years before, he said, and his grief had made it difficult for him to concentrate. He was trying out an anti-depressant medication, and really wasn’t up to reading a book with full attention just then. However, he had read some of my work, and trusted me sufficiently that I was welcome to write a blurb myself and attach his name to it. I duly did so, and the hardback edition of Prime Obsession carries a 60-word blurb “by” Martin Gardner on the dust jacket, all 60 of the words actually written by me.

Martin Gardner died on Saturday at age 95. He was a good and generous man, like Bill Buckley a great American gentleman in the old style, ever valiant for truth. Roger Kimball has a tribute here, with links to many others.

** The reason it is funny is that a much earlier Shanks, an Englishman named William, was one of the first names in π computation. In 1873 this former Shanks computed the first 707 decimal places of the ineffable number and published his result in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Much later (1944) it turned out that he had made a mistake in the 528th digit, and all the following digits were wrong. This somewhat comical little misfortune was universally known among mid-20th-century math buffs. The Shanks of the 1962 paper was apparently no relation.

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