Martin Gardner: The Polymath

Martin Gardner, who died on May 22 at the age of ninety-five, was described in his New York Times obituary as a polymath. That’s a word not often used anymore, because there are few who embody its meaning (my American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “a person of great or varied learning:” Gardner was both). For all his impressive erudition Gardner wasn’t a boastful man and would probably have eschewed the polymath designation. On the other hand, he enjoyed wordplay and might have been tickled by being described by a word whose last syllable was a subject he loved and artfully opened up to many, many readers. That was Martin Gardner: a real intellectual—a thinker on profound subjects, but with a light touch.

Gardner’s writ ran wide; he seemed to write about everything: math (he wrote Scientific American’s “Mathematical Games” column for over twenty-five years), science, technology, pseudoscience, fiction, poetry, language, philosophy, politics, history, magic, popular culture, the zeitgeist. I don’t doubt that I’ve left things out. His writing filled seventy-plus books; that’s a lot of cogitating. He was, I believe, often thought of as a popularizer, particularly of science and math. But I don’t think that term does him justice: it has connotations of oversimplification and talking down to one’s audience. Gardner was popular, because with his straightforward prose and playfulness he could explain all sorts of usually arcane topics without degrading them. Moreover, he was too personally decent to be condescending; he even gave his intellectual enemies their due.

I’m certain that there are many others who are as surprised as I am that Gardner was not an atheist. He discusses this at some length in his intellectual memoir, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (1983). As he says in one passage in the book: “I am quite content to confess with Unamuno that I have no basis whatever for my belief in God other than a passionate longing that God exist [sic] and that I and others will not cease to exist. Because I believe with my heart that God upholds all things, it follows that I believe that my leap of faith, in a way beyond my comprehension, is God outside of me asking and wanting me to believe, and God within me responding.”

But Gardner’s theism didn’t encompass miracles and one consequence of this was that he spent decades—since the 1952 publication of his groundbreaking book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science—warring on pseudoscience and the hucksters and dupes who embraced it. If I had to choose one field in which Gardner’s contribution to the public good was most pronounced (a choice I’m reluctant to make), it would be this one. He often used humor to challenge pseudoscience silliness, but he took his campaign against this poppycock seriously: he helped found an organization dedicated to exposing and excoriating paranormal and occult absurdities and wrote a regular column for the group’s journal. Pseudoscience affronted Gardner’s intelligence; more significantly, I suspect that he believed it was a danger to a democratic society: it fostered ignorance, gullibility, and foolhardiness and those, in turn, undermined our country’s politics and institutions. (Gardner wrote a number of classic essays on pseudoscience for the New York Review of Books. Many of them can be found in Science: Good, Bad and Bogus [1981].)

I edited book reviews that Gardner wrote for the journals Dimensions and Education and Society. Unfortunately, I never met him face to face; our relationship was conducted through the phone and correspondence. He was always cordial and cooperative, although I’m sure he felt that I overedited his work. (I still remember one of his few strictures: He never began a sentence with “But.” He was also diligent: When he reviewed the novel W: Or the Memory of Early Childhood [the essay is reprinted in The Night Is Large, 1996]by the French writer Georges Perec, he contacted the translator to clear up some questions he had.) One of the other things, in my professional capacity, that I admired about him was that he wasn’t a snob: Dimensions and Education and Society weren’t exactly glittering publishing venues, but if I pitched an idea to him and he found it interesting, he would accept the assignment.

While Gardner could be very funny in print, I don’t recall his ever cracking a joke in any of my conversations with him. Nevertheless, he had what I think of as a heartland earnestness (he was born and raised in Oklahoma) that I found endearing. He once, very kindly, agreed to read part of a novel I was working on. (He praised what I showed him, which I’m still proud of.) To tease him, I situated one of the book’s more outré episodes in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where he was then living. He wrote back and resolutely explained why Hendersonville was the wrong site for the shenanigans I depicted because it was a really nice, sophisticated place inhabited by many intelligent Northerners. Another time, when I was chatting with Gardner on the phone, I said that I had recently been present at a lecture by Robert Anton Wilson (the writer and somewhat eccentric science and societal pundit) and when I had asked a question and mentioned Gardner’s name, Wilson had drubbed him with some snarlingly bilious remarks. “He hates me!” Gardner exclaimed, but he seemed more upset that I had to endure Wilson’s bad manners than with his petulant comments.

We probably won’t see his like again. Gardner appealed to the super smart as well as those of more modest intellectuality, but the culture is becoming so fissured, indeed fragmented, that before long the man or woman of letters who can bridge all kinds of different intellects and interests will be as defunct as the trilobite.

About a month before Gardner’s death, I met the novelist Robert Coover at the Mysterious Bookshop in Lower Manhattan. Someone mentioned Coover’s novel, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh Prop., which toys with mathematical concepts that manifest themselves in a rather portentous board game played with dice. I told Coover that Gardner liked the book (see the latter’s Mathematical Magic Show [1977]) and Coover, pleased, said that he liked Gardner’s writing too. “What’s Gardner up to now?” Otto Penzler, the owner of the bookstore, asked. I replied that at the age of ninety-five, Gardner was still writing and publishing. “I want to be like that at ninety-five,” Penzler said. Same here.