October 21, 2009 | 17
Longtime Scientific American columnist Martin Gardner turns 95 Wednesday, and a profile in Tuesday’s New York Times honors the mathematical proselytizer who, tireless as ever, marks the milestone himself with the publication of a new book.
The new volume of essays, When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish, is just the latest of Gardner’s several dozen books on magic tricks, Lewis Carroll, pseudoscience, and seemingly countless other areas of interest to the nonagenarian polymath. He has also published dozens of lengthy reviews and essays in the New York Review of Books. But the Times profile dwells mostly on Gardner’s mathematical puzzles, many of which he put forth in the pages of Scientific American in his Mathematical Games column from 1957 to 1981.
Gardner landed the job after publishing an article on flexagons, a "mathematical diversion" in which paper strips are folded into hexagons, in the magazine’s December 1956 issue. Asked if he thought he could turn out a regular column on similar topics, Gardner said he could, even though he didn’t own a single math book at the time. "I rushed around New York and bought as many books on recreational math as I could," he said in 1995, when Scientific American profiled its former columnist. Throughout his tenure Gardner’s forte was not devising new puzzles—he professes to have had little knowledge of math at the outset—but digging up, dusting off, and livening up old ones. "The number of puzzles I’ve invented you can count on your fingers," he told the Times.
In his role as a gamester, Gardner has introduced countless people to mathematics—or at least made their acquaintance with it more cordial. "I think my whole generation of mathematicians grew up reading Martin Gardner," science-fiction author and now-retired computer science professor Rudy Rucker told Scientific American in 1995. Ronald Graham, a mathematician at the University of California, San Diego, sounded a similar tone to the Times: "Martin has turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children."