Thursday, May 27, 2010

Remembering Martin Gardner (and Philip Morrison)

This is a few days late, but I can't let the death of Martin Gardner pass without comment. The great man died several days ago at age 95.

Anyone in my generation with a scientific bent will know Gardner for his 25 years as author of the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American, beginning in 1956. From the columns, we migrated to his many books on recreational mathematics and puzzles. He was our playful guru, our inspiration.

I have subscribed to Scientific American since November 1959, so I came aboard not long after Gardner. I was a graduate student in physics at the time and my new spouse gave me a subscription to the magazine for my birthday. I was doing a lot of heavy, brow-sweating mathematics in graduate school. Gardner's column kept reminding me that mathematics was fun.

Tom and I perhaps best appreciate Gardner for his popularization of John Conway's Game of Life, a recreation that gave us both a lot of joy. (Maybe Tom will tell us the best on-line site.) I also especially value Gardner's Annotated Alice, and, 30-years later, More Annotated Alice.

In 1965, Gardner was joined at Scientific American by book review editor Philip Morrison, whose reviews were consistently gems of original thinking, offering illuminating insights into science. Like Gardner, Morrison had a great sense of fun.

Once, back when I was writing my column for the Boston Globe, Philip and Phylis Morrison invited my wife and me to dinner at their Cambridge house. Talk about fun! Their home was a little museum of scientific toys.

Gardner and Morrison defined the glory days of Scientific American. It remains a fine magazine, but it no longer has the family feel of the Gardner/Morrison era. Those were the days when we opened the magazine with a sense of curiosity and play. The fun may have begun in the back pages, but it infiltrated even the most obtuse articles up front.