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Happy (2 5 x 3 – 1)th birthday to Martin Gardner

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Martin GardnerLongtime 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."

Photo of Gardner: MFO by Creative Commons License

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  1. 1. NomadicView 1:48 pm 10/21/2009

    The title of his last collection of essays,When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish, comes from this marvelous poem. It is one of my favorites from my childhood.

    http://nomadicjoe.blogspot.com/2009/03/evolution.html

    Link to this
  2. 2. NomadicView 1:48 pm 10/21/2009

    The title of his last collection of essays,When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish, comes from this marvelous poem. It is one of my favorites from my childhood.

    http://nomadicjoe.blogspot.com/2009/03/evolution.html

    Link to this
  3. 3. tknapp5 1:59 pm 10/21/2009

    [Forgive me if I'm repeating myself. I've had difficulty logging in.] You need an extra set of parentheses. Two to the fifth power times three minus one is ambiguous without them. It could be 95, as you suggest, or 64. How ironic that this should occur in a tribute to Martin Gardner. Has he read this?

    Link to this
  4. 4. ARJ 2:13 pm 10/21/2009

    By coincidence I just reviewed Gardner’s previous book ("The Jinn From Hyperspace") at my blog on Monday. He’s definitely an American gem:

    http://tinyurl.com/yku9yyq

    Link to this
  5. 5. joeiii63 2:27 pm 10/21/2009

    A second set of parentheses is not necessary. Rather the closing parenthesis is misplaced. It should occur immediately after the 3.

    Link to this
  6. 6. cblsttrotwd 2:36 pm 10/21/2009

    Order of operations folks. Powers, multiplication, subtraction. It’s fine.

    Link to this
  7. 7. chuckg 2:37 pm 10/21/2009

    The parentheses are entirely unnecesary. You two should check your mathematical hierarchy rules :)

    Link to this
  8. 8. rhodinsthinker 2:40 pm 10/21/2009

    The formula is correct as stated. There is a standard order: Exponentiation precedes multiplication or division precedes addition or subtraction. Only deviations have to be marked by parenthesis. When I was in school, this was called "BODMAS" (parentheses were loosely called "brackets").

    Link to this
  9. 9. tknapp5 3:44 pm 10/21/2009

    OK, you got me. Mea culpa. But it would look better with a closing parenthesis after the 3, as joeiii63 said.

    Link to this
  10. 10. zbicyclist 6:21 pm 10/21/2009

    On Yahoo RSS feed, the headling is "Happy (25 x 3 – 1)th birthday" because the exponent doesn’t show up. I took this to be a horrible typo.

    I wonder what the worst typo in Martin Gardner’s own work was?

    Link to this
  11. 11. Michael Hanlon 4:34 am 10/22/2009

    K(u]d(os} fo(r a [life] we(ll li)v}{ed. ! to the nth factorial (If ever a man deserved a nobel for mathematics….)

    Link to this
  12. 12. rogersgeorge 8:03 am 10/22/2009

    Actually, it would look better with a times sign instead of an x. (Alt-0215 = )

    Link to this
  13. 13. amdrox 10:55 am 10/22/2009

    why not just say 95th?

    Link to this
  14. 14. Michael Hanlon 1:30 am 11/7/2009

    At the blog site for the "farthest observed stellar event" I calculated a number and , if he’s listening, would love the input from Grand Number Poobah Gardner if it is the biggest real word calculated number he has encountered. The factors of the calculation can be seen at the other site but the result is

    76,254,048,000,000,000,000,000 miles (minimum)

    Link to this
  15. 15. Macrocompassion 9:44 am 12/2/2009

    zbicyclist! I’ll answer that.

    In Gardener’s revised 2005 book on symmetry, he claims (in an exercise) that the number of planes of symmetry of a cube (hetrohedron) is 12, whereas actually it is 13! When I wrote to his publisher there was no reply from him.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Stainless 2:23 am 12/4/2009

    The parentheses are for the "th".

    Link to this
  17. 17. PeterROwen 7:27 pm 03/15/2010

    Surely you don’t mean 13! because that’s a very large number. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist, now I wish I could have. No I don’t it’s funny in a weird sort of way.

    Link to this

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