Tuesday, May 25, 2010

He wrote a lot, now people are writing about him

This entry is not written by me - this is an e-mail which was sent to all friends by Colm Mulcahy (or how readers of MAA columns know him -"Card Colm"). He knew Martin Gardner personally. Here is his interview with Martin Gardner in 2006. There are lots of other interesting links in Colm's message, so I wanted to share them with you.

An intellectual giant, brilliant expository writer and one of the great American men of letters of the 20th century has died, aged 95.
A great friend to mathematics, physics, computer science and philosophy, all of which he wrote about extensively (also religion).  He knew Salvador Dali, Roger Penrose and M. C. Escher personally, and helped to popularize the latter's mind-boggling art in the US.   He also played a major role in popularizing origami in the West.
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=scholars-and-others-pay-t (yes, that url is correct!) includes this quote:
"So it is a very sad day to think that such a person is gone, and that so many of us owe him so much, and that so few people—even extremely intelligent, well-informed people—realize who he was or have even ever heard of him. Very strange. But I guess that when you are a total non–self-trumpeter like Martin, that's what you want and that's what you get. And so perhaps it's all for the best that he remains sort of hidden behind the scenes, known only to a special set of people." Douglas Hofstadter
Winning Ways (Academic Press, 1982), by Berlekamp, Conway & Guy, is dedicated to "Martin Gardner, who has brought more mathematics to more millions than anyone else."
He was a leading light in the (disjoint?!) worlds of magic & scepticism also.  See James Randi’s heartfelt words here: http://www.randi.org/site/
Martin was named by MAGIC Magazine as one of the 100 most influential magicians of the twentieth century.  (See http://turnermagic.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/a-final-comment-on-martin-gardner/ also.)
His best seller was The Annotated Alice In Wonderland (1960).
Fun fact from one of his very numerous books: "If you shrank the Earth to the size of a billiard ball and dried it off, it would be smoother than a billiard ball."
I had the great honour and pleasure of getting to know Martin over the last decade, first via letters and on the phone, and then visiting him three times “in retirement” in Oklahoma.  A sweeter, more modest, self-effacing man you can hardly imagine.  He could talk knowledgably for hours on end about a bewildering variety of subjects, generally curious and probing, always full of fascinating trivia and deep insights.  He could sit silently for 15 minutes as both of us tried to think through something.  Delightful company, every time.  I never could persuade him to play the saw for me (and I tried).  He was so famous, yet so shy.
What follows is both an introduction to him for those who didn't know about his amazing influence, with links to obits/appreciations/video and more, and also (excuse the presumptuousness) a handy one-stop-shop for some of these items for those who DID know him to some degree. 
At the very end are some brand new suggestions from his family as to how to make a contribution in his honor (and a suggestion from me for those who had the good fortune to visit him in his final years in Norman).
He was next to impossible to get a good photo of.  He’d freeze up when he saw a camera coming, the frequent chuckles would fall silent, the mischievous twinkle in his eye wound vanish, and he’d look a little stiff and almost uncomfortable. As his son Jim remarked to me in an email this morning:
Dad was not a big picture guy (well, actually he did quite well with getting the "big picture" of things; I should have said not a big photo guy - LOL).
Truth be told, Martin was a “big picture” guy very early on. A story he told me a few years ago: he worked for Univ of Chicago press office right before enlisting in the Navy, circa 1941, and "was privy to some insider Manhattan Project stuff” (my wording, I don’t recall his precise words anymore, though I may have it all on tape somewhere). In August 1945, he was on a destroyer when the news came through that "a spectacular bomb had been dropped on the Japanese" (my words, again). He said that he had a foreboding feeling that he was the only person on the ship who knew that the world was about to get much, much more complicated.
(there is a civilian photo from a few years later in which – to me -- he bears an uncanny resemblance to an impish Jim Carrey, but I can't find it on the web today)
Ironically, he did not like travel, and I gather that from 1945 on, he "stayed close to home" (Chicago, NYC, N. Carolina and finally back in his native Oklahoma).  I don't believe he ever went to the UK, or even Canada, after the war, despite having so many friends there, and indeed all over the world.  He said he never went back to Chicago after moving to NY, and never went back to NY after moving to Hendersonville.  In one sense his seemed to dislike looking back, preferring to move forward.
Once he settled into the assisted living community near his son Jim in Norman, OK, starting in 2004, he adopted a routine which rarely saw him deviate from the daily pattern of work in his room, meals in the dining room, and checking or posting mail. In the past few years in particular, he kept external trips to an absolute minimum, as far as I could tell, which was very smart in my opinion.  The risk of falling is high past 90! 
In a similar fashion, he kept the internet (and computer chess, an old vice of his) at arm’s length.  He had a lot of important work to do, he knew writing was his forte, and he organised his life to maximize his productivity in that arena.   We are all the beneficiaries of these choices, e.g., in the past few years alone he got through the revisions/updates for 5 of the 15 old classic collected Scientific American columns books (as well as a heck of a lot of other writing!).
Many assumed that he was a mathematician by trade, yet he never took a single mathematics class past high school.  Despite this, "Martin has turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children."  (I think that's a Persi Diaconis quote.)
He told me that he never gave a lecture in his life, and that he wouldn’t know how.  That's quite an inaccurate self-assessment from such a brilliant thinker and writer!
Three of his classic puzzles are here:
Author of close to 100 volumes, he published more books in the last year alone (including one on wordplay and another on G. K. Chesterton) than most people do in a lifetime.  Mind you, he started publishing (magic) at a very young age, back in 1930!
Prediction: he's not finished publishing yet. Knowing Martin, he's not going to let a little thing like death stop his output.  He was incredibly well organised, and planned ahead.  He may publish more in the future than most writers do in life.
He was arguably a deep sceptic who believed in god,  see:
A few months ago, he told me on the phone that he’d had a baffling visit.  Richard Dawkins had come by for a few hours, and Martin couldn’t for the life of him figure out why.  I suggested some obvious reasons, such as his own deep interest in religion and philosophy, not to mention his extensive publications and reputation in this area, but he remained unconvinced.  He said that the two of them had chatted for ages about this and that, and then Dawkins said he had to leave. They both realized that they hadn’t touched on theology at all, whereupon the guest sat down again and they went hard at it for an hour or so. He seemed chuffed that he’s had such a famous visitor!   He could still display an almost childlike innocence at 95 which was quite touching.
Martin got his own 4 minutes of fame on NPR yesterday:
(his biographer Dana Richards did a remarkable job of answering very general questions from Michelle Norris.  Full transcript provided if you can read faster than you can listen.)
Some obits and appreciations:
More obits on the way, including these (from folks who wrote to ask permission to use a photo of mine): The Economist (soon), Daily Telegraph (tomorrow), TIME Magazine (7 June issue) and China’s Modern Weekly (www.modernweekly.com.cn).
Not obits, but great stuff:
http://www.ams.org/notices/200506/fea-gardner.pdf (long interview with great photos)
("Martin Gardner wrote what became his most successful book because Bertrand Russell didn't have the time."  The last time his native city paid tribute to him in life?)
(even longer interview, includes pictures from his time in the navy)
A really worthy 45 minute Canadian TV programme on him from 1996: 
(The Nature of Things, also available on youtube in shorter, more digestible chunks. This includes TV footage from the 1950s!  Many big names in mathematics appear: Conway, Diaconis, Graham, Coxeter, etc. Also magicians Jay Marchall and Max Maven.  Watch this to find out what happens to marshmallows in a vacuum.... and learn of Martin's role in how a housewife with 5 kids (Marjorie Rice) confounded mathematicians with her breakthrough geometric discoveries in the 1970s.  Also: http://tessellations.home.comcast.net/~tessellations/ )
One of Martin’s last puzzles (from g4g9 website):
Write out the alphabet starting with J, namely

Erase all letters that have left-right symmetry (such as A) and count the letters in each of the five groups that remain.
From Martin's son Jim today:
"I've identified two foundations that individuals can sent gifts if they so choose. Dad, of course, would say none are necessary. But if anyone inquires, here they are:
 Martin’s Gardner's family has requested that anyone wishing to make a contribution in his honor may do so through either of these foundations:
     • The James Randi Educational Foundation, 201 S.E. 12th St. > Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316-1815, U.S.A. [ http://www.randi.org ]
     • The Mishawaka Foundation, 1 Brickyard Drive> , Bloomington, IL 61701 [ http://mishawakafoundation.org/ ]  "
A comment from me: If you've ever visited people in "old folks homes" you'll know that the quality of care and attention varies a lot.  On my three visits to Norman, I was very impressed by the people who worked in the Rivermont Retirement Community, and the support they provided for their extraordinarily active and independent guest, who probably generated more mail (incoming and outgoing) than the rest of the guests combined.  At mealtimes they always graciously accommodated Martin's visitors (who thereby got to find out where a large proportion of the world's brussels sprouts end up), and also cheerily obliged by snapping photos of Martin and his visitors.
Their care for all of their charges seemed exemplary, from what I could see.  It's often thankless, underpaid work.  I intend to drop the home a line, in old-fashioned MG style letter format, to express my appreciation of their kindnesses and dedication to providing dignified care to their charges, and of course to Martin in particular.
Their address is: Rivermont Retirement Community, 750 Canadian Trails Drive,Norman, OK 73072, USA.
A closing story, which for me sums up the sheer decency of Martin Gardner the man.
I think it was on my first visit there, in March 2006, as we returned from lunch in the common dining room to his private room. Per usual, he checked his mail box, and as we rounded the corner to his room there was a woman roaming the hall in a dressing gown. She was moaning softly and seemed distracted.  Martin nodded a friendly hello to her and we retreated to his room, and to the sofa far from the door.  He told me that she was often upset about things and cried a lot, that it was very sad. Sometime later we heard shouting outside, and after a minute, when it did not die down, we opened the door to investigate.  The woman seemed even more distressed at this stage, and was shouting angrily at the walls as she flailed around.  I went for help and when I returned with assistance, she had quietened down completely.  Martin was sitting down with her, saying comforting things, and she seemed quite reassured.  He remained with her for about five minutes, until he was convinced that her crisis had passed, and finally left her alone as she walked calmly back to her room.  It was a life lesson for me: sometimes a little kindness can go a long way even when we feel helpless and under-qualified to help.
The next time I visited him, in 2007, I asked how that woman was.  "She died a few months back," he reported sadly.  Then he added, "Curiously, I found out after she died that she was a retired mathematician.  Apparently quite a good one."
Martin didn't just inspire young mathematicians in public ways, through his writing, he touched some of them to the very end, in very private ways.
(He later told me that he thought that she was not local, but like himself had retired to the facility on account of  having an adult kid in the area.   He said he'd try to find out her name for me, but we never closed the deal there.)
Farewell my friend, it was one of life's GREAT treats getting to know you a little in person, spending some quality time with you in your oasis of thought in Norman, OK. 
               Colm Mulcahy

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