Martin Gardner is probably best remembered for his clever puzzles, questions like “what’s special about the number 8,549,176,320?” (the answer: it has the 10 natural integers arranged in English alphabetical order). These puzzles have been printed, reprinted, and passed around uncounted times; his famous mushroom-head dollar puzzle even got mentioned in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Gardner’s puzzle legacy came from his “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American, which ran for 25 years and profoundly influenced generations of scientists and mathematicians.
That list is a who’s who of curious minds: along with Sagan and Dali, his fans included W. H. Auden, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Vladimir Nabokov, and Stephen Jay Gould. Neil deGrasse Tyson called him “the last of the polymaths,” and Pulitzer prize winning science writer Douglas Hofstradter said Gardner was "a major shaping force in my life.”
Gardner’s fame among scientists and mathematicians is so great that there is an annual “Gathering 4 Gardner” convention, where experts in mathematics, puzzles, and more gather to discuss the many, many subjects that he loved. Both Michael and Kevin had been slated to attend the 2020 gathering before it was postponed, and are looking forward going in the future.
Interactive exhibit from the last Gathering 4 Gardner event.
But Gardner’s contributions to science didn’t just come from inspiring others: his groundbreaking 1957 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science debunked pseudoscientific beliefs in everything from the Flat Earth to ESP and quack medical treatments. In 1976, Gardner, Sagan, and Asimov helped form the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, in order to increase scientific literacy and prevent people from being conned, hoaxed, and manipulated by false paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. He’s regarded as the father of the modern rational skeptic movement.
Though a famous debunker of the paranormal, stage magic was one of Gardner’s lifelong passions (which you may have guessed from the two books in your box), and he was named one of the most influential magicians of the 20th century. He also loved classic fantastical literature: Gardner was a renowned expert on the works of Lewis Carroll, particularly famous for his annotated edition of Alice in Wonderland. He was such a fan of The Wizard of Oz that he wrote a sequel called Visitors From Oz, in which Dorothy and the gang are transported to Earth in the year 1998. You could think of it as an early form of fan fiction.
Despite decades of public writing and opening himself up to the public, Gardner still held some surprises:
- Shockingly, when asked if he enjoyed solving puzzles, Gardner said “Not particularly; I’m not very good at it, really.” For a man most famous for publishing hundreds of engaging puzzles, Gardner didn’t like solving them himself, but he deeply, deeply appreciated them, and how they could help teach you to think in new ways.
- Though he spent a lifetime using logic and rationality to debunk pseudoscience and the paranormal, his own beliefs were more nuanced. He said, “I call myself a philosophical theist, or sometimes a fideist, who believes something on the basis of emotional reasons rather than intellectual reasons."
We hope you enjoy your new Gardner books; we’re very happy to have added him to the list of Curiosity Box authors. Gardner was a huge proponent of the power of curiosity to make our lives better, and we’ll leave you with some of his thoughts about it: