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Ed Pegg

Remembering Martin Gardner

May 27, 2010 —
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On May 22, 2010, Martin Gardner died, unexpectedly, at age 95. The previous sentence contains a paradox* explained within his book The Unexpected Hanging and Other Mathematical Diversions, one of 15 books known collectively as “the Canon,” comprising hundreds of the Mathematical Games columns Martin wrote for Scientific American between 1956 to 1981.

My fifth-grade science class had old copies of Scientific American available, and I read a few of those columns. From him I learned that math can be fascinating, perhaps one of the great lessons I’ve learned in life. I found out that the library had more issues, and whole books by Martin. I tracked down more of his columns on microfiche.

After reading all those columns, school-level math was easy. Years later, I tried to follow in Martin’s footsteps by putting recreational mathematics online. For example, I contributed a diagram of pentagon tiling to a very early version of MathWorld. “Tiling with Convex Polygons” was one of Martin’s columns, in his book Time Travel and Other Mathematical Bewilderments; today, you can explore these objects in Wolfram|Alpha.

Pentagon tiling in Wolfram|Alpha

Martin’s works influenced generations of mathematicians, and many of the topics he discussed can be found here at Wolfram|Alpha. For a Lewis Carroll expert like Martin, a snark was “something hard to find”, as in Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” (for which Martin compiled a companion volume, The Annotated Snark). So he used the word “snark” to describe a graph with three edges attached to each node, but which could not be 3-colored without any clashes at a node.

Snark examples in Wolfram|Alpha

Martin’s work’s greatly influenced our Demonstrations and MathWorld sites. Many of the topics he popularized in his Mathematical Games columns are available within Wolfram|Alpha. Here are just a few of them.

Collatz conjecture »
Császár polyhedron »
Ramanujan constant »
Fractals »
Knots »
Random walk »
Möbius strip »
Klein bottle »
Graph theory »
Superellipse »
Necklaces »
Ternary system »
Dragon curve »
Fibonacci numbers »
Lucas numbers »
Catalan numbers »
Word puzzles »
Latin square »
Pascal’s triangle »
Zeno’s paradox »
Fermat’s last theorem »
Gambling »
Pythagorean theorem »
Angle trisection »
Abacus »
Imaginary numbers »
Spiral »
Cycloid »
Conic section »

He will be greatly missed.

* The paradox is known as the “Unexpected Hanging Paradox”.  Basically, when you don’t have control, you cannot predict exactly when an event will occur even if you know it is going to happen. Martin was 95 and in poor health, but his death still came as a shock to many of us.


Martin Gardner was a great influence to me, even though I was born in 1981, the year he stopped writing to SciAm. I can’t say I will miss him, because I feel his presence constantly.

Posted by nicolau werneck May 27, 2010 at 3:27 pm

My father subscribed to Scientific American for many years and he and I especially looked forward to Martin Gardner’s columns. We folded flexagons, simulated generations in the Game of Life and built a rudimentary computer from index cards with holes punched into one end.

Posted by Lyman Hurd May 27, 2010 at 4:03 pm

A beautiful Experience.

With compliments

Roberto Ellero

Posted by Roberto Ellero May 28, 2010 at 7:10 am

I recently wrote a book on Alfred Lawson, who Gardner profiled in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Without Martin, I likely would never had heard of A. W. Lawson. Gardner fought the good fight against pseudoscience and misplaced credulity.

Posted by Jerry Kuntz May 28, 2010 at 9:46 am

Always one of my favorites. I, too, looked forward to reading his column in every issue, and read all his books, even if I didn’t understand all the concepts involved. When I was 12, I wrote him a letter asking him where to find the rules for Jetan, Martian Chess, and he wrote me a wonderful handwritten note in return. You will be missed, Mr. Gardner.

Posted by Michael Turniansky May 30, 2010 at 12:51 am

Oh My ! ( was travelling & did not learn of his sudden, UNEXPECTED demise !! )
I too am soo indebted to his genius for attracting me to the apparently arcane world of Mathematics…for uncovering the hidden beauty & mystery in the seemingly mundane things & phenomena…!!

Dearest Martin…THANKS fer stopping by at Planet Earth… 🙂
THANK you..!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Will MISS You S(o/u)rely…!! :-(:::

Have a nice TIME… 🙂

Posted by Raghu Ugare June 2, 2010 at 5:02 pm

I (born 1965) read as much as I could get from him.
I still have his books and now my kids are reading them …
He was simply great

Posted by Matthias Rogel June 3, 2010 at 6:04 am

I’m not sure which hole my head was in, but I just learned of this sad news through teh W|A blog.

I can remember finding _Science_Puzzlers_ in my grade school library way back in the 60’s, being looked at oddly by my classmates (“geek” hadn’t been invented yet) for actually *liking* science!

Martin will be sorely missed.

Posted by D'n Russler June 10, 2010 at 2:19 am