Farewell Martin Gardner - a guest blog

By Nicolas (Paris, France) - a friend and puzzle-solver.

Martin Gardner just passed away. If anybody influenced me into science and math, that should be him.

Martin Gardner was a journalist who wrote columns in Scientific American, short witty pages on fun math topics. He is the one who introduced things like Conway's game of life to the general public, raising overall interest in mathematics as a fun thing to do.

Gardner entered our family life in the 70s when my father brought back the latest issue of Scientific American. I remember folding my first hexaflexagon when I was maybe 6 or 7 and bringing it to school to wow the teacher. I did not understand the concept of Moebius stips then but I certainly got the fun part of it. My parents subscribed to the French
edition (Pour la Science) later on and we would get Gardner's columns every month with great impatience. From there on we bought all of his books, did his problems, read the solutions and discovered we had sometimes invented better ones. We played the game of life with pen and paper until we got our first programmable pocket calculators and later our own kid computer (a Sinclair ZX81). His columns were always bringing something new, teaching us tricks in algebra, geometry, paradoxes and logic, you name it.

I recently discovered that Gardner has also helped MC. Escher achieving the incredible fame he has today among scientists, and probably inspired Douglas Hofstadter into writing "Goedel, Escher and Bach", another inspirational book to which I probably owe my scientific-oriented career.

30 years later, I still own a copy of Martin Gardner's "Aha!" (dated 1980) and read it to my kids every now and then, enjoying the mathematical seeds he planted into my mind as a kid and propagating them one generation further.

Some of the gems found in Aha:

  • The Loch Ness monster's length is 20 meters plus half of its length. What is his total length? Click to submit or read the solution.

  • Try to guess my phone number. You can ask me 20 questions and I will answer by Yes or No. How can you do that? Click to submit or read the solution.

  • These two miners come out from a coal mine at the end of their working day. One of them has his face covered in soot and the other one still has a perfectly clean face. They both glance at each other in the elevator bringing them back to the surface. When they get home, the one with the clean face cleanses himself thoroughly and the other one does not. Why? Click to submit or read the solution.


[This latter story is much more profound than it looks. It took me years to actually see its relevance in the way we perceive our own selves compared to other people.]

Farewell Martin. Your achievements will live on forever.


References:
Interesting video about Martin Gardner
Martin Gardner's page on Wikipedia
Conway's game of life
Sinclair ZX81
Goedel, Escher and Bach: an eternal golden braid
Aha! Insight

You can find some of the Martin Gardner's books on our Math Resources for Adults page.

35 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for posting this -- I enjoy math a lot but did not know about this guy or hexaflexagons...I just killed two hours reading how to create them :)

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  2. I didn't know the theory of hexaflexagons either, however I think I played with a few. A wonderful video that Nicolas references above tells a joke that one once got an end of a tie trapped inside a hexaflexagon and slowly the tie disappeared completely. I also was fascinated to see marshmallows grow in vacuum and hear the story of a simple housewife developing mathematical concepts of pattern repetition.

    It seems that Martin Gardner truly believed that our lives are filled with puzzles and that knowing answers is not as important as noticing the questions and searching for the solutions.

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  3. I make models of polyhedra for classrooms, and Gardner & Escher were very instrumental in bringing math down to the 'everyman's level through art & puzzles etc in much the same way that Hawking does with physics.

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