May 23, 2010

Martin Gardner's Generosity

I was saddened to hear this morning that Martin Gardner had died, at the age of 95.

I first encountered Martin's writings when I was in the ninth grade, and I bought a copy of the September 1962 issue of Scientific American. This particular issue featured a series of articles on Antarctica, a topic of study in my geography class. But it was Martin's discussion of divisibility tests that really caught my attention.

Scientific American stayed on my monthly shopping list, and I invariably turned to Martin's "Mathematical Games" column first. Over the years, his remarkably lucid articles introduced me to one wondrous mathematical topic after another: hexaflexagons, fractals, Möbius strips, pentagonal tilings, curves of constant width, the fourth dimension, and so much more. They left an indelible impression, and I often go back to his articles as starting points for my own mathematical excursions.  

In 1986, when I submitted the proposal for my first book to editor Jerry Lyons of W.H. Freeman, Jerry turned to Martin for his assessment of the outline. Martin was kind enough to give it a strong endorsement, noting that, as a longtime subscriber to Science News, he was already familiar with my writing. Two years later, when The Mathematical Tourist was published, Martin provided a quote for the cover.

I wrote to Martin on a number of occasions, looking for advice on where to find information on, say, unusual dice or novel applications of Möbius strips. He always had good advice and often provided me with copies of materials from his own collection.

I met Martin only once, in 1997. My family was vacationing in Asheville, N.C., while I attended MathFest in Atlanta. At the meeting, Ron Graham reminded me that Martin lives in Hendersonville, N.C., very near Asheville, and suggested that I call. When I got to Asheville, I telephoned, and Martin generously invited us to visit.

What a treat! We talked with Martin and his wife, Charlotte, about writing, books, and more. We viewed a variety of mathematical artworks, including a large portrait of Martin constructed of dominoes. He gave me and my two sons, Eric and Kenneth, a tour of his house, particularly the vast collection of papers and objects that he had amassed over the years. He posed puzzles, showed some magic tricks, and pulled out novel gadgets for the boys to try.

I was delighted to see, in person, some of the items that I remembered from long-ago columns. One was a mysterious circuit of switches, wires, and light bulbs that, as I recall, had puzzled me immensely when I had first read about it.

I owe a great deal to Martin Gardner and his generosity and kindness, and I will miss him.


Ms Mims said...

Noted via twitter, [sadly] another distinguished mathematician lost: [Walter Rudin, a preeminent mathematician who taught at UW-Madison for 32 years, died Thursday at the age of 89 after suffering from Parkinson’s disease.] See>

Pacha Nambi said...

I also 'discovered' Martin Gardner from the articles in the 'Scientific American' magazine. His columns always fascinated me and I am thankful to Mr. Gardner for educating me the wonderful world of mathematics. In his death, we all lost a great writer and thinker.