This Sunday, 21st October 2012, marks what would have been the 98th birthday of Martin Gardner, American man of letters and numbers, as well as logic, puzzles, magic and scepticism. I had the good fortune to know Martin in the last decade of his life, and a more gentle and modest man you could not find, completely disproportionate to the forceful and wide influence he wielded for over 50 years as a science and mathematics journalist of the highest calibre.
The first time I met Martin he fooled me by showing me a tall thin glass and getting me to agree that its height exceeded its circumference, when in fact it didn’t.
Martin Gardner wrote every book on the six shelves behind him in the above photo. He’s best known for the 300 columns on recreational mathematics which he wrote for Scientific American between the mid 1950s and the early 1980s, now available in 15 collections, and also in one place on a searchable CD-ROM from the MAA. Others know him for his Annotated Alice (1961), which remains his best seller, with over half a million copies shifted.
Every autumn, in and around October, there are worldwide Celebration of Mind events small and large, informal and formal, at which children and adults, amateur and professional mathematicians, puzzlers and magicians gather to celebrate the endless creativity of the human mind, inspired by Gardner’s extensive written legacy.
Over 50 Celebrations of Mind has already been held this year. So far, there are only two Celebration of Mind events listed on the site map in England, and none at all in Wales or Scotland. The good news is that there is still plenty of time for interested people to host one in the coming month, and we hope that many teachers and maths clubs in the UK and elsewhere will seize the opportunity to organise one this year. The range of topics one could explore is vast, and ideas can be generated by looking at any of the links here, and the CoM resources page.
As one example, there are hexaflexagons, the subject of the column that started Martin’s long run at Scientific American. Vi Hart of the Khan Academy, who first absorbed the Gardner influence through her father, mathematician and sculptor George Hart (himself a first generation fan of Martin’s), has launched a series of excellent videos on this dynamic paper folding activity, especially for this year’s Celebrations of Mind. The first video has had over 4 millions views in the past three weeks, and given rise to a Celebration of Mind sponsored Flexagon Party craze around the globe.
That site has full instructions for how to run a flexagon making event for participants of all ages. More mathematically mature readers may enjoy a special issue of the College Mathematics Journal from earlier this year, entirely devoted to mathematics inspired by Gardner.
Surprisingly, but of great importance, we note that Martin had no formal training in his field — indeed he never took a mathematics class at university — and he didn’t get into his stride until he was middle-aged. The lesson is clear, and it’s one that shines through his top notch and seductive writing: anyone can have fun with mathematics and rationality and it’s all within reach regardless of age or credentials.
Rather than asking “Is there a doctor in the house?” we should ask “Is there a curious person in the room?” and go from there. Are there more curious people in Britain and throughout the world who’d like to share that with some others in the weeks ahead? If so, please pick a time and a place, gather some friends or pupils, and register a Celebration of Mind or Flexagon Party.
We leave you with a tasty treat: how can you cut this brownie into two identically shaped pieces with a single (not necessarily straight) cut?