RIP Martin Gardner (1914-2010)

The great popular science writer, mathematician, and skeptic Martin Gardner passed away at a ripe old age. Roger Kimball wrote a fitting obituary. An excerpt:

I first encountered Gardner’s work in high school when I stumbled on The Annotated Alice, his splendid edition of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I later discovered that he also published annotated editions of other works he admired, including The Wizard of Oz, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and several books by G. K. Chesterton, one of his favorite authors.

The many tributes that are beginning to pour in about this extraordinary man bear witness to his irrepressible  energy and curiosity about the natural world. He wrote a veritable library of books — more than seventy — on  mathematics, science, literature, and philosophy and related topics.  One of my favorites is The Ambidextrous Universe — what an intriguing title! — about the properties and amazing prevalence of symmetry and “handedness”  in the universe. Gardner also wrote hundreds — maybe thousands — of columns for Scientific American (for twenty-five years he wrote the magazine’s Mathematical Games column), The Skeptical Inquirer (where he indulged, delightfully, a passion for exposing the chicanery of pseudo-sceince), and other magazines, including, I am proud to say, The New Criterion, for which he wrote some dozen pieces over the last six or seven years.  […]It is a melancholy pleasure that what may be Gardner’s  last published piece, a review of Amir Alexander’s Duel at Down: Heroes, Martyrs & the Rise of Modern Mathematics, will appear next week in our June issue. Gardner was full of praise for Alexander’s “marvelous history.” But he concludes with a wistful criticism that reveals something essential about his cast of mind. Alexander had prefaced his book with Keats’s famous couplet from Ode on a Grecian Urn:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all

We know on earth, and all ye need to know.

“Alas,” Gardner wrote, “the lines are almost menaingless.  They are not all we know or need to know. Moreover, there are true mathematical theorems  that are ugly, and there are beautiful ‘proofs’  that are false.  T. S. Eliot surely spoke for most literary critics when he called Keats’s lines ‘a serious blemish on a beautiful poem.’”

There are many sides to Martin Gardner (it is hard to be using the past tense about him): his lucid prose, his nearly single-handed popularizing recreational mathematics, his tireless debunking of quacks and pseudoscientists, and his deep (if unconventional) religious belief.

It has no agreed-upon name. There is no way you can talk someone into feeling it, any more than you can talk someone into falling in love or liking a piece of music  or a type of cheese. Rudolf Otto, the German Protestant theologian, coined the word numinous (from the Latin numen, meaning divine power ) to express this emotion. . . .  For Otto, the essence of the emotion is an awareness of what he called the mysterium tremendum, the tremendous mystery of the wholly other. . . .

If one is a theist, the emotion combines with strong feelings of humility, of the littleness of one’s self, of holiness, of gratitude for the privilege of existing.

Indeed. May his memory be blessed.


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