Philosophy, Reviews, Science.

Martin Gardner – Thanks for many hours of delight

Martin Gardner, a serious thinker and polymath, most famous for his mathematical puzzles and his Annotated Alice, died recently at the ripe old age of 95.  Martin was at his most public during the years that he wrote the famous Mathematical Games column for Scientific American.  I will miss him very much, not so much for his puzzles, which held little interest to me, but for his wide ranging essays and expositions on science, mathematics, philosophy and even poetry.

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, by Lewis Carroll

The first book he wrote that caught my attention was the Annotated Alice, perhaps his most well known.  He provided the standard guide to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, in which  he showed readers the layers of hidden meaning beneath the surface of this child’s fantasy tale.  Gardner’s deep knowledge of mathematics made him an excellent editor of the mathematician Charles Dodgson’s book (Carroll was a pen-name), as Dodgson weaved many mathematical references and puzzles into the fabric of the tale.

The Night Is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995, by Martin Gardner

In my experience, his best book was a collection of 47 broad-ranging essays entitled The Night is Large, which spanned physical science, mathematics, social science, the arts, philosophy and religion, and pseudo-science; all of these were written over a period of 57 years.  He was a clear writer, a fair one, and deeply curious about the world. His humility shone alongside his typical thoroughness in attacking a subject.  Gardner’s subjects ranged from Heisenberg to Freud to special relativity to William James to Popper to the Ancient Mariner to Adam Smith to proofs of God.  Where else would you want to go?

The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, by Martin Gardner

He was a philosophical theist in the sense of Plato or Kant, by his own description, who respected religious and philosophical thought but saw in it the limits of thinking he found in every subject. His book the Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, another delight, described in plain language what he believed and didn’t believe, across a wide variety of philosophical topics.

Martin Gardner was a skeptic, but without the burden of unrelenting pessimism that often accompanies that state of mind.  One of my favorite writers is Mark Twain, who often fought with that problem; Gardner found enough delight in the mind to keep him from succumbing. 

I am grateful for his contribution to the humanities, and I will miss him greatly.

Listed below are a few other books of Gardner’s that I would recommend.

The Flight of Peter Fromm, by Martin Gardner

Annotated Ancient Mariner: The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Relativity Simply Explained, by Martin Gardner

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve the puzzle to post a comment *