The Legacy Of Math Writer Martin Gardner

Michele Norris talks to Dana Richards, professor of computer science at George Mason University, about the legacy of Martin Gardner. Gardner, who died over the weekend at the age of 95, wrote the column "Mathematical Games" for Scientific American, and introduced the public to a lot of new mathematical ideas.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

To people who love math and logic puzzles and science, Martin Gardner was a legend. From 1956 until 1981, Gardner wrote the column "Mathematical Games" for Scientific American. And in those 25 years, he introduced readers of that magazine to all sorts of obscure things, most of them with intriguing names; things like polyominoes, hexaflexagons and fractals.

Gardner somehow managed to make difficult-to-grasp notions intelligible to readers, and more importantly, he made them fun.

Martin Gardner died over the weekend at the age of 95. And joining us to talk about his legacy is Dana Richards. He's professor of computer science at George Mason University. He knew Martin Gardner for 30 years.

Mr. Richards, thank you very much for being with us.

Professor DANA RICHARDS (Computer Science, George Mason University): My pleasure.

NORRIS: For those of us who are not mathematicians, can you give us a sense of classic Martin Gardner column?

Prof. RICHARDS: Well, a classic Martin Gardner column would be an essay. He published a lot of puzzles over the years and everybody knows those puzzles; they've become famous. But mainly, he wrote essays. He would take some topic and describe it in a way that related it to other things, related it to the real world, related it to literature and to science and to magic. He was a magician himself, in fact, and in philosophy.

And he made all of this come together and made the math seem, you know, more interesting, more important than any teacher ever would be able to.

NORRIS: You know, his columns often, they went on for several column inches. But we - in the brief time that we have, what is your favorite? Which one stands out and really is a good example of his work?

Prof. RICHARDS: One that's most famous, I think, and one I would recommend people read is his April Fool's column. He wrote that several things had been done that were clearly impossible, and it indicated his playful side. He had an alter ego called Dr. Matrix. And Dr. Matrix would introduce the playful side of things and he just tried to keep things lively that way. So the April Fool's column, I think, is what a lot of people remember.

NORRIS: He was also a prolific writer, not just of his column, but of books. He wrote more than 70 books on a broad range of topics.

Prof. RICHARDS: Yes, he did. He's best known for his work on pseudoscience, and he's known as sort of the father of the modern skeptical movement. He wrote his first important work on that in 1952. And he became a founding member of several important groups that debunk certain aspects of pseudoscience. And on addition to that, he would write on a variety of things.

He would write about literature. His bestselling book was the annotated "Alice in Wonderland." He would write about religion, a lot about science and a variety of other topics.

NORRIS: Now, he was your friend; to many people, he's the man who wrote a popular column, but you know him better than many people. Is there something that you'd like to leave us with that perhaps will speak to not just the columnist, but the man, something that perhaps people don't know about him?

Prof. RICHARDS: Well, he was philosophically a Mysterian, which is not a word you'll find in many dictionaries. But he defined himself as a Mysterian because he struggled all his life with philosophical questions. His library was full of books heavily annotated in the margins. And he came to the conclusion that life is mysterious, the world is mysterious, and that we have to come to grips with that, and is influenced to the - how he lived his life, how he thought about religion, how he interacted with people.

And so it's the sense that the world is a wonderful place and a mysterious place that pervaded everything he did. And so I think that's what you should remember him by.

NORRIS: Thank you very much for making time for us.

Prof. RICHARDS: My pleasure.

NORRIS: That's Dana Richards. He's a professor of computer science at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He was speaking to us about his friend, Martin Gardner, who died Saturday at the age of 95.

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