I was saddened to hear today that Martin Gardner has passed away at the age of 95. Born in 1914, Gardner was a prolific and gifted writer. He is best known for his mathematical and scientific writing, but he also dabbled in magic and philosophy. His The Annoted Alice is perhaps the ultimate edition of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland.
For many years he wrote a column on “Mathematical Recreations” in Scientific American, which I read avidly as a child. These columns gave me endless pleasure, solving puzzles, constructing tetraflexagons and hexaflexagons and pondering probability paradoxes.
I am sure it was reading Gardner that I first came across the peculiar “second child paradox”. While perhaps not strictly a paradox, it is at least a little counter-intuitive and goes something like this. Imagine you bump into an old friend you have not seen or heard from in years who tells you she has two children and one of them is a boy. What are the odds that she has two boys? Since the possibilities are Boy-Boy, Boy-Girl, Girl-Boy, the answer is 1/3. But if she had told you she has two children and the oldest is a boy, the odds that she has two boys are 1/2!
Of his science writings, my favourite is The Ambidextrous Universe (now in its third edition), which explores left and right “handedness”–the difference between an object and its mirror image–and its role in the physics of the universe. In exploring the notion of mirror symmetry, Gardner asks the strangely puzzling question why does a mirror reverse left and right but not up and down?
Gardner also gave me my first exposure to the debunking of pseudo-science. In 1952 he wrote “Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science”, which takes on an eclectic mix of peculiar beliefs ranging from flat-earthers to UFO-logists, from bizarre beliefs about pyramids to ESP and from Forteans to medical quackery. But the chapter that has really stayed with me since reading Fads & Fallacies almost 30 years ago is the one on dianetics, the “science” behind Scientology.
In this chapter, Gardner describes the notion of an “engram”. According to adherents of dianetics, the unconscious mind has a habit of making recordings of painful experiences. These recordings, particularly those made as a child or even in utero, have a tendency to cause problems later in life. Of course, trained “auditors” can help identify and purge troublesome engrams. As Gardner notes, engrams seem to be susceptible to bad puns:
An auditor reported recently that a psychosomatic rash on the backside of a lady patient was caused by prenatal [engram] recordings of her mother’s frequent requests for aspirin. The literal reactive mind had been feeding this to her analytical mind in the form of “ass burn”.
As a skeptic, Gardner would look askance at anyone claiming to be able to predict the future, but it is a pity his own powers of prediction were not more accurate:
At the time of writing, the dianetics craze seems to have burned itself out as quickly as it caught fire, and Hubbard itself has become embroiled in a welter of personal troubles.
Sadly, Scientology is not only still around, it is probably stronger than it was back in the 1950s.
Science, mathematics and skepticism all continue to be very important to me, and I suspect that Martin had no small part to play in sowing their seeds in my mind many years ago. There are many others like me he has inspired and, along with his enormous catalogue of publications, that inspiration is a wonderful legacy.