Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Flexagon but Not Forgotten: Celebrating Martin Gardner's Birthday


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.

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

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