Martin Gardner obituary

A pioneering science and maths writer, and populariser of ingenious puzzles and games

He was not a mathematician – he never even took a maths class after high school – yet Martin Gardner, who has died aged 95, was arguably the most influential and inspirational figure in mathematics in the second half of the last century.

Through his monthly column in Scientific American, which ran for 24 years, Gardner popularised mathematical puzzles and games, bringing serious research to new audiences and revolutionising the field of recreational maths.

But his contribution to maths represents only a fraction of a versatile and remarkably prolific literary career. Gardner wrote fiction, books on philosophy, physics, religion, magic and word games, and The Annotated Alice (1960), a definitive guide to Alice in Wonderland. In 1957 he wrote the first bestselling book to debunk pseudoscience. He was the original popular sceptic, the forerunner of figures such as Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre.

Gardner was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the eldest of three children. As a boy, he was shown a magic trick by his father, a petrol geologist. The surprise of seeing physical laws seemingly contravened piqued a fascination about the way the world works, and magic became a lifelong passion. He wrote for a magic magazine while at high school in Tulsa and demonstrated magic equipment at a department store while at the University of Chicago. When I interviewed him in 2008, Gardner was much more animated when discussing card tricks than he was about any of his many other interests.

In 1932 he went to the University of Chicago to study physics, but instead majored in philosophy, graduating in 1936. After serving in the US navy during the second world war, he returned briefly to Chicago for graduate studies in philosophy but got distracted by writing fiction. He sold about a dozen short stories to Esquire, and moved to New York, but when his editor changed, he decided to concentrate on non-fiction.

In New York, Gardner mixed with writers and magicians, one of whom, Bill Simon, introduced him to Charlotte Greenwald, whom he married in 1952. He took a job as staff writer on the children's publication Humpty Dumpty's Magazine, but spent a lot of time in the public library researching his own projects. One of his first books, Mathematics, Magic and Mystery (1956), concerned the maths of popular magic tricks. Shortly afterwards, his interest in the philosophy of science led to his sceptical classic, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957). He would continue to expose what he saw as scientific fraud and quackery for more than 50 years. In 1976, together with Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and others, he founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. His articles on the Church of Scientology angered the church.

An expert in writing about cut-and-fold games for Humpty Dumpty's, in 1956 Gardner submitted to Scientific American an article on flexagons, which were allegedly invented by a British mathematics student tearing strips off A4 paper to make it US letter size. Impressed with the piece – and by the positive reader reactions – the magazine immediately gave Gardner his own column, called Mathematical Games.

Gardner's brief to write about mathematics was initially restricted by his limited knowledge of the field. His first columns took him weeks to research: "It took me so long to understand what I was writing about, that I knew how to write about it so most readers would understand it." The erudition and intellectual rigour of his academic background, combined with the playfulness and love of surprise from his experience with magic, resulted in a wonderful prose style – clear, witty, unpatronising and smart.

Gardner was 42 when he wrote his first Mathematical Games column. He became a kind of father figure to a generation of young mathematicians, who corresponded with him and whose work he popularised. Gardner managed to make serious maths palatable by concentrating on puzzles that could be easily expressed and understood, even if the maths behind them was complex. He showcased cutting-edge developments such as Benoît Mandelbrot's fractals, Roger Penrose's aperiodic tiles and John Horton Conway's Game of Life. His column on MC Escher brought the Dutch artist's optical illusions to a wider audience.

Such was Gardner's influence between the late 1950s and 1980s that it would be hard to find a professional mathematician from those years who does not cite him as an inspiration. For many, retaining a Gardner-like playfulness at the higher reaches of their subjects has helped them discover new mathematics. The 1982 book Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays, by the eminent academics Elwyn Berlekamp, John Horton Conway and Richard Guy, was dedicated to Gardner, who, they wrote, "brought more math to more millions than anyone else".

By the early 80s, Gardner and his wife had moved to North Carolina, where he continued to write books and articles. After Charlotte's death in 2000, Gardner moved back to Oklahoma. He was still writing this year, with more than 70 books to his name. His most recent article, on the pseudoscience of Oprah Winfrey, was published in the March issue of the Skeptical Inquirer.

In 1993, a fan of Gardner's column, Tom Rodgers, organised a conference in his honour, called the Gathering for Gardner. The event is now biennial and unites some of the biggest names in mathematics, magic and puzzle-making.

He is survived by two sons, James and Thomas, and three grandchildren.

Wendy M Grossman writes: Martin Gardner seems always to have been in my head. I first heard of him in a maths class when I was 13. Our teacher had us making hexaflexagons – strips of paper folded into hexagons in such a way that you could expose different surfaces depending on how you flexed them. For years, my father and I played another of Gardner's games, Nim, on restaurant placemats.

A few years ago, when the complete collection of his Mathematical Games columns were published on CD, I discovered how good they really were, covering everything from public-key cryptography to superstring theory. He was the first to cover so many breakthroughs – and he could not crib from Wikipedia.

He was always willing to learn from anyone. A high-school friend was thrilled when the second edition of The Annotated Alice cited the letter he had sent, pointing out a bilingual pun that Gardner had missed. In my late 20s, when I first encountered the sceptical movement, I found Gardner was (again) there first. His books Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (1981) and Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science remain two of the best introductions to a rational view of paranormal claims.

The UK's Skeptic magazine, which I founded in 1987, owes its existence as much to Gardner's pervasive influence as to James Randi's more direct, hands-on demonstrations. That is just one tiny piece of the Gardner effect. He inspired generations of American mathematicians, scientists, magicians and writers. I speak for legions of sceptics around the world when I say he will be missed.

• Martin Gardner, science writer, born 21 October 1914; died 22 May 2010


Alex Bellos

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Obituary | Brian Goodwin

Obituary: Key founder of theoretical biology who became an advocate of holistic science

Walter Schwarz

09, Aug, 2009 @5:04 PM

Article image
Lynn Margulis obituary

Evolutionary biologist whose innovative work has become mainstream

Steven Rose

11, Dec, 2011 @6:32 PM

Article image
Maryam Mirzakhani obituary
Iranian mathematician who was the first woman to win the Fields medal

Martin Bridson

19, Jul, 2017 @12:06 PM

Article image
Benoît Mandelbrot obituary

Mathematician whose fractal geometry helps us find patterns in the irregularities of the natural world

Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon

17, Oct, 2010 @6:00 PM

Article image
Heini Halberstam obituary

Other lives: Expert in one of the most mysterious areas of mathematics

Judith Halberstam

30, Jan, 2014 @6:25 PM

Article image
John Nash obituary
Nobel prizewinning mathematician whose life was depicted in the film A Beautiful Mind

Len Fisher

25, May, 2015 @4:54 PM

Article image
Daniel Quillen obituary
A US mathematician, he developed a key algebraic theory

Graeme Segal

23, Jun, 2011 @5:29 PM

Article image
Jeremy Taylor obituary
Other lives: Television producer and science writer who produced two popular books on evolution

Barbara Flynn Taylor

17, Oct, 2017 @11:05 AM

Article image
Martin Perl obituary
Physicist who won the Nobel prize for his discovery of the tau lepton

Frank Close

23, Oct, 2014 @2:42 PM

Article image
Martin Fleischmann obituary
Distinguished electrochemist whose claims for cold fusion have yet to find widespread acceptance

Brian Josephson

31, Aug, 2012 @6:33 PM