Essays on Faith, Recreational Math

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 27, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Essays on Faith, Recreational Math


Byline: John Greeny, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Martin Gardner has an inquiring mind would be the winning entry in an understatement-of-the-year contest. After a slow start - he didn't write his first book until he was 38 - the Oklahoma native started turning out books, good, solid, well-researched and well-written books, so regularly that today his total exceeds 70.

Generally termed a recreational mathematician, Mr. Gardner, who turned 95 in October without showing any signs of slowing down (when's the last time you read a book in which the author suddenly tells you he's 94 and writing from his room in an assisted living facility?), has also been called: U.S. logician, mathematician, puzzle constructor, and popularizer of logic and mathematics ; game inventor and author ; American mathematics and science writer specializing in recreational mathematics ; the world's best-known recreational mathematician ; and, an incredibly prolific journalist and essayist with eclectic interests.

Not bad for a guy whose major, at the University of Chicago (about which more later), was philosophy.

In 1956, Mr. Gardner, having knocked around a bit doing public relations and journalism, was working on a children's magazine called Humpty Dumpty (I swear). Four years earlier, he'd written his first book, In the Name of Science and had another one due out that year Mathematics, Magic, and Mystery ), so it wasn't a total surprise when the editor of Scientific American asked him if he thought he might be able to come up with enough material for a monthly column about recreational mathematics.

Even though he'd not taken a math class since high school, Mr. Gardner intuited the wisdom of the idea and immediately quit his job to do the column. More than half a century, and 68 books, later, he's still at it. And, as he shows in the essays, articles and reviews in this collection, he's still got it.

From the first essay Ann Coulter Takes on Darwin : Ann Coulter is an attractive writer with green eyes and lopsidedly cut long blond hair, whose trademark is insulting liberals with remarks so outrageous that they make Rush Limbaugh sound like a Sunday school teacher .. ) to the last, Is Socialism a Dirty Word?, both Mr. Gardner's insight and his prose continue to sparkle.

In addition to his work on games and puzzles, Mr. Gardner is well-known as a debunker, in particular of such beliefs as New Age thinking, parapsychology, most organized religions and followers of Uri Geller - the book is dedicated to James Randi, top magician, old friend, and the world's foremost debunker of bogus science and charlatans who claim paranormal power. Some might say Mr. Gardner deserves to share that distinction.

The book is divided into seven sections: Science; Bogus Science; Mathematics; Logic; Literature; Religions; and a very short one on Politics, all of which contain a virtual groaning board of food for thought, especially on a cold winter's day. Readers will find themselves contemplating some subjects not tackled since college bull sessions.

Personal note: eons ago, when I walked in to get the results of a pre-college aptitude test, the tester's opening line was I hope you don't want to be an engineer.

No danger of that, but I mention it as preface to saying I suspect the section on Mathematics is very good, but I lack the equipment to evaluate it properly. Nonetheless, to the extent that I understood what Mr. Gardner was saying, I actually enjoyed such essays as Dracula Makes a Martini, "Fibonaci Sequences "and"L-Tromino Tiling of Mutilated Chessboards "the last a paper Mr. Gardner wrote for the May, 2009, issue of"The College Mathematics Journal."

In some of the essays, the author indulges himself at too great a length, at least for my tastes. For example, Was the Sinking of the 'Titanic' Foretold, in which he debunks the popular (in some circles) belief that the sinking of the great ship was predicted in Morgan Robertson's novel Futility, published 14 years before the event, is longer than the entire sections on Logic and Politics combined.

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