A life in reason: Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner was a puzzle enthusiast, a magician, and a lifelong believer in and champion of the power and beauty of mathematics

Martin Gardner. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Martin Gardner. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Take a right angled triangle whose two shorter sides are 6cm long and 8cm long. Draw squares on each of those sides. Add their areas—36 and 64 sq cm, respectively. What you get is, as Pythagoras told us a long time ago, the area of the square on the longest side, 100 sq cm.

Martin Gardner would have been 100 this week. I think it’s just possible that had he been alive, he might have celebrated the day with Pythagoras, showing with actual cut-out cardboard squares how the two smaller squares add up to the large one that marked his age. After all, in a celebrated 1998 essay in the New York Review of Books, Gardner debunked what was called the “new new math”: new ideas for teaching the ancient subject. In particular, he remarked on how it “taught” Pythagoras’ famous theorem, producing college students who hadn’t grasped that, fundamentally, it is “about geometric squares.”

Whereas, if you simply use squares, you put the idea in their heads straight away, never to escape.

Gardner was arguably the 20th Century’s most famous and popular mathematician. But there’s an asterisk there: amazingly, he wasn’t a mathematician by training (he studied philosophy at university), and he himself would probably have objected to the label. He wrote Scientific American’s fabulous Mathematical Games column for 30 years, besides numerous books and other articles. He was a puzzle enthusiast, a magician, and a lifelong believer in and champion of the power and beauty of mathematics. His legacy is truly in the generations of kids who first grew fascinated by mathematics because of his writing. Count among them, me.

One whole fascinating side to the man were his tireless efforts to debunk stuff. Not just fuzzy ways to teach mathematics, as in his 1998 article about new new math, but also pseudo-science: UFOs, psychics, ESP and the like. As far back as 1952, for example, he wrote a book called Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. It is a thoroughly delightful takedown of various “strange cults and curious panaceas which at one time or another have masqueraded as science.”

Reading the book today is like being transported back in time. Those were days of Lysenkoism, Bridey Murphy, dianetics, Velikovsky, racism, orgonomy, parapsychology, a blackstrap-molasses cult and plenty more. If you’re wrinkling your brow at those phrases, thank Martin Gardner and others like him. They showed these up for the empty and often dangerous trickery they really were, and they vanished into the oblivion they deserved.

And yet some of those phrases are still around: dianetics and racism, to pick two. Not forgetting the constant attempts by one or the other set of people to proclaim their superiority to others, whether by virtue of skin colour, gender, intelligence, faith, birth or something else.

The lesson is that irrationality and pseudo-science are like the ancient Hydra: slice off one rotting branch and another springs up to take its place. And some folks are extremely passionate about their particular irrationalities. In his preface to the second edition of Fads and Fallacies, Garnder tells of receiving “violent letters” from many irate readers of the book. One wrote saying he “pitied” Gardner because had “turned (his) spine on God’s greatest gift to suffering humanity.” For our own great champion of reason, Narendra Dabholkar, it went well beyond angry letters: for his steadfast willingness to stand against irrationality, he paid last year with his life.

In the 1970s, Gardner was severely critical of the famous Israeli mentalist Uri Geller. Geller bent spoons, and this had people, even eminent scientists, swooning over his so-called powers. (Gardner once said that “scientists are the easiest persons in the world to fool”). But Gardner and some others suggested that he bend his spoons under controlled conditions, exactly as scientists do with their own research findings. Naturally, the spoons did not bend. Geller was comprehensively debunked, effectively shown up as just another sleight-of-hand artist, which is all he was. (By itself, though, being one is nothing to be ashamed of).

And yet, a generation later—speaking of Hydra—Geller is remembered not for being debunked, but as a great psychic. Here’s a line from a 2009 Huffington Post article about another Israeli: “Lior Suchard is the heir apparent to Uri Geller, the self-described Israeli ‘mystifier’ who gained fame bending spoons seemingly only with the power of his mind. In fact, Suchard was the winner on a TV show that designated The New Uri Geller.”

The same Lior Suchard, by the way, will soon be traipsing through India, showing off his powers as a “mentalist”.

The Huffington Post writer goes on to say that sure, “debunkers” (note how it’s that word that now gets the quotes) did show up Geller, but “I am not choosing sides.” As if rationality and irrationality are actually two reasonable “sides” to choose between.

Gardner and Dabholkar, both gone. Who will take up the challenge to show up the new new waves of mentalists and their kind? You.

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