Saturday, May 22, 2010

Martin Gardner, 1914–2010

Author Martin Gardner died today, May 22, 2010, at the age of 95. [Corrected date]

 Martin Gardner with his The Annotated Alice
Portrait in background by Ken Knowlton (photo source)

A great expositor of science and mathematics and scourge of pseudo-science has passed: Martin Gardner died today at the age of 95. According to the article on him in Wikipedia, he published more than 70 books. I confess that the only one that I have read all the way through is his classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, originally published in 1952 and still in print. Here is a passage from chapter 1, “In the Name of Science”:
In the last analysis, the best means of combating the spread of pseudo-science is an enlightened public, able to distinguish the work of a reputable investigator from the work of the incompetent and the self-deluded. This is not as hard to do as one might think. Of course, there always will be borderline cases hard to classify, but the fact that black shades into white through many shades of gray does not mean that the distinction between black and white is difficult.
Delightful book. I do not know what his last days were like, but the man certainly had a good run.

(Credit to an entry by James Randi in the JREF Swift Blog for my learning of this event. And credit to the anonymous commenter who corrected my error about Gardner’s date of birth, which I originally took to be 1920, following—to my disgrace—the Wikipedia article cited above. The date of 1914 is given in this article by Phil Plait.)

Addendum, May 24, 2010: I notice that this entry has received some visits from a Google search for the text “Martin Gardner Jewish”—presumably from people curious to know whether Gardner was Jewish. I have seen no indication that he was so, even as a matter of descent, and the following passage from his book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999) seems to me positively to indicate that he was not:
Let me speak personally. By the grace of God I managed the leap [of faith] when I was in my teens. For me it was then bound up with an ugly Protestant fundamentalism. I outgrew this slowly, and eventually decided that I could not call myself a Christian without using language deceptively, but faith in God and immortality remained. (221)
The passage implies that in his early life, the option of religious belief presented itself to Gardner in the form of Protestant fundamentalism. (Gardner grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma.) In view of this, it seems very unlikely that he had any Jewish connections.

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  1. I believe he was 95 (born Oct. 1914).

  2. Oh, botheration! Shame on me for trusting Wikipedia! The very article by Phil Plait that is cited as a source for giving Gardner's date of birth as 1920 says that he was born in 1914!

    How mortifying that I not only made this mistake, but put it into my title!

  3. great post for great man

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  5. Why did you write in parentheses "Gardner grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma" where you did?

    1. It partially explains the statement that immediately precedes it, viz., "the option of religious belief presented itself to Gardner in the form of Protestant fundamentalism." That would have been unlikely to be the case if Gardner had grown up in Chicago or New York, say.

  6. ..."In view of this, I wouldl say it was very unlikely he had any Jewish Connections".
    Umm not sure of the interpretation of 'connection' here, but since Gardner's Wife was Jewish, his children were Jewish, his best friend, James Randi, actually ALL his friends,were Jewish, I would say the man had as many Jewish connections as it is possible to have without actually being Jewish

    1. That was not clear writing on my part. When I said "connections I was thinking of immediate ancestry. But I did not know that his wife was Jewish. Or, if he mentions the fact in his autobiography (which I did read once), I have forgotten his mention of it.

  7. Gardner is a Jewish name I thought.?! There was some Jewish psychologist with that name too. Strange if he wasn't Jewish.