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Flexagon but Not Forgotten: Celebrating Martin Gardner’s Birthday

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

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Martin Gardner, photographed by Konrad Jacobs

October 21 is the anniversary of Martin Gardner’s birth. Gardner (1914-2010) is a legend in recreational (and professional) mathematics circles. Although he had little mathematical training, his 1956-1981 Scientific American column “Mathematical Games” has had a huge impact on the way people view math. In a Science Talk podcast shortly after Gardner’s death, Douglas Hofstadter, author of the popular math book Gödel, Escher, Bach, said that for himself and many others, “Scientific American was just the wrapping for Martin Gardner’s column.”

Vi Hart, the world’s premier professional “mathemusician,” has created three videos about “hexaflexagons” in honor of Martin Gardner’s birthday. The videos contain a fictionalized account of the discovery of flexagons, also chronicled in Martin Gardner’s first recreational math column for Scientific American. In her typical fast-talking, wildly creative way, Hart draws us into the flexigating fun.

Around the 3:50 minute mark of the first video, Hart introduces us to the Flexagon Committee (motto: “to explore the mysteries of flexigation”). In the next video, we find out who they are: Princeton graduate students Arthur Stone, Bryant Tuckerman and Richard Feynman (yes, that Richard Feynman) and math instructor John Tukey. We learn about flexagon “Feynman diagrams” (no, not those Feynman diagrams), “Tuckerman’s traverse” and the connection to Martin Gardner.

The third video is a hexaflexagon safety guide, featuring instructions for “disarming” a hexaflexagon and some tasty-looking hexaflexaMexican food.

Hart has her own unique voice, but she has clearly been influenced by Gardner’s lighthearted, joyful approach to beautiful mathematics. She puts it best around the 3:10 minute mark of the second video:

Now fast-forward 15 years and be Martin Gardner. You’re an amateur magician hanging out at your friend’s place talking about magician stuff. Anyway, your friend shows you something you’ve never seen before: a big flexagon he’s made out of cloth. And you’re thinking, ‘Hey, this is awesome. Maybe other people would like to know about this flexagon thing.’ So you write an article for Scientific American and soon you’ve landed yourself a gig writing a regular column about recreational mathematics called ‘Mathematical Games,’ and it’s a huge success and gets hundreds of comments, I mean, letters, and there’s nothing else like your column, and all the cool people are inspired by you, and you’re pretty much the reason why people know about things like tangrams and Conway’s Game of Life and the work of M.C. Escher and other things like that. Now fast-forward 50 years and say you’re me, and the generation of people inspired by Martin Gardner are now the people inspiring you, so he’s your math inspiration grandfather, and now you yourself are in the business of mathematically inspiring people, and you want them to be aware of their math inspiration heritage.

Today, Gardner’s spirit is alive in Hart and the hundreds of others who have been influenced by his approach to mathematical thinking. This October 21, raise a flexagon to Martin Gardner.

Evelyn Lamb About the Author: Evelyn Lamb is a postdoc at the University of Utah. She writes about mathematics and other cool stuff. Follow on Twitter @evelynjlamb.

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

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  1. 1. billfalls 8:54 pm 10/19/2012

    I remember the title of Gardner’s SciAm column as “Metamagical Themas,” an anagram of the “Mathematical Games” title cited in the article. It was always fun and often over my head – i.e., even more fun.

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  2. 2. Shecky R. 8:57 pm 10/19/2012

    Love the Hofstadter quote! ;-) With all the emphasis on Gardner’s mathematical prowess, some folks may not realize he was an excellent and prolific philosopher, commentator, book reviewer, essayist as well (and also wrote at least one novel). An American gem!

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  3. 3. Bozobub 1:18 pm 10/20/2012

    …Damn, now I have paper cuts =p. HexaflexaOUCH!

    Wonderful little topology experiment.

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  4. 4. evelynjlamb 4:23 pm 10/20/2012

    So what you’re saying, Bozobub, is it’s hexaflexavexing you? I would like to make some hexaflexaMexican food, but I’m not hexaflexadexterous enough.

    (I’m here all week, folks.)

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  5. 5. evelynjlamb 4:26 pm 10/20/2012

    Oh, and billfalls: Metamagical Themas was the title of Hofstadter’s Scientific American column, which came after Gardner stopped writing for SciAm. Learn something new every day.

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  6. 6. sijodk 4:57 pm 10/20/2012

    @billfalls: At some time in the early 1980′s Gardner invited Hofstadter to take turns writing the column, and Hofstadter used the name Metamagical Themas for his contributions. I’ve unfortunately given away the issue of SA where Hofstadters first contribution (pointing out that it’s an anagram) is printed, but having re-read it a few times I can tell you that he was in awe over getting this opportunity, and rightfully so I would add.

    Gardner was indeed a shining star of recreational mathematics, and his humble style of writing continues to be an inspiration.

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  7. 7. VisKa 3:17 am 10/22/2012

    Awesome! Martin Gardner’s popular math books helped me choose science as a life path. I can distinctly remember making hexaflexagons and tetraflexagons some time during my teenage years… Thank you!

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