Sunday, May 23, 2010

Martin Gardner, Renaissance Man

Martin Gardner, who passed away today (1914-2010), was a renaissance man, a rarity in our times of specialization. His scientific American column that ran for a quarter of a century introduced the beauty of mathematics, logic and science, particularly physics, to ordinary Americans and others around the world. He accomplished this through puzzles, games, palindromes and teasers. He sometimes used words with deliberate double meaning that reminded one of Vladimir Nabokov. He hated pseudo-science with a passion that reminded one of Richard Feynman.

For about 14 years, I edited a magazine for a non-profit organization. I introduced a feature in it called "Two Puzzles" that had nothing to do with the magazine's objectives. I lifted these puzzles shamelessly from Gardner's books such as "The Unexpected Hanging" and "Perplexing Puzzles and Tantalizing Teasers." Readers took the "Two Puzzles" more seriously than the main articles and sent me their solutions with glee, proving that intellectual fun was more compelling than earnest discourse on this and that.

We are unlikely to see the likes of Martin Gardner again. The culture and the narrowness of interest in disciplines exclude this possibility. But his more than 50 books will continue to delight generations with their mix of seriousness and playfulness, and with their unique brand of humor and sense of wonder.

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