When I worked at Scientific American in the 1960s, mail addressed to Martin Gardner (no relation) sometimes wound up on my desk. The author of the widely read “Mathematical Games” column lived in Hastings-on-Hudson and never came into the office, which was in midtown Manhattan. On a few occasions I brought him his mail. He worked in the attic, which was lined with olive drab file cabinets containing 3”-by-5” index cards. This extensive filing system, he confided, was the key to his seemingly universal knowledge. “I don’t store much up here,” he said, touching his forehead, “but whatever the subject, I know where to look it up.”
He was soft-spoken, his hair was almost white, his complexion was fair, and he wore thick glasses. He would have been 49 or 50 when our paths crossed, but I was in my early 20s and naively considered him… not old exactly, but slightly past his prime. In the previous decade Gardner had written an intellectually militant expose, “In the Name of Science,” debunking Eugenics, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics (Scientology), Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Box, Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision,” Extra-sensory Perception (ESP), and other “frauds and fallacies.” (Those blunt words were added to the title when Ballantine Books brought out the paperback in 1957.)
I thought then that for Gardner “Mathematical Games” was a step away from muckraking and active struggle against irrationality, a step in the general direction of the sunset. Little did I know that he would leave Scientific American in 1981 and resume writing — purposefully and prolifically — for almost three more decades. He also functioned as a political organizer, helping to found the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and its journal, the Skeptical Inquirer.
Gardner died May 22 at age 95. Joe Wisnovsky, an old colleague with whom I reminisced, had stayed in touch with him over the years. In fact, Joe had published Gardner's last book, “When you Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish” (Hill & Wang, 2009). He recalled that Gardner had started at Scientific American as a freelancer, and even after his column became a regular feature, had remained an independent contractor until Gerard Piel, the publisher, encouraged him to become a regular employee, i.e., entitled to benefits. “The last thing Gerry Piel ever expected was that Martin would reach 65 and retire,” said Joe, “which he could afford to do because of the pension plan.” Piel and managing editor Dennis Flanagan did not want to lose Gardner, whose column was a great asset. “They went into a tizzy,” Joe said. “They told him, ‘Martin, you don’t have to resign.’ But Martin said, 'I think I’d like to retire and move south and write books.'”
Which is what he did, relocating to Hendersonville, North Carolina, writing columns for the Skeptical Inquirer and other journals, and bringing out numerous anthologies. Joe said Gardner never used an agent but “struck a hard bargain around retaining the rights to republish his material.” A few years ago his wife died and he became very depressed. He stopped writing, stopped seeing people, stopped corresponding. (His medium of choice had always been the postcard.) After several years of dysfunction, he moved back to Oklahoma, where one of his sons was teaching at the University in Norman. “And just like that he snapped out of it,” Joe said, “and was his old, productive self. He even learned how to use a computer.”
It was astonishing to learn that Martin Gardner had not been a computer user from early on. Joe said that one of the reasons Gardner gave up his “Mathematical Games” column at the dawn of the 1980s was that he anticipated the field becoming computer-oriented. (His successor renamed the column “Mathematical Recreations.”) Gardner used the computer only for research, Joe said, and never used email, continuing to correspond by postcard.
A few years ago Joe was publishing a book called “Irreligion” by John Allen Paulos, a mathematician, and asked Gardner to contribute a blurb. “Martin was friends with Paulos and had blurbed one of his books in the past,” Joe said. “I had totally forgotten that Martin was not an atheist but some strange kind of deist. He wrote me a very nice letter declining, pointing out that he remained a deist ‘even though atheists have all the best arguments.’”¥¥
(Fred Gardner is editor of O'Shaughnessy's. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)