Monday, February 24, 2014

Curiosity and fun


In November 1959 I received in the mail my first issue of Scientific American. I was a graduate student in physics at the time and my new spouse had given me a subscription to the magazine for my birthday. I remained a subscriber for more than 40 years, saving every issue.

During that time, geology was revolutionized by the theory of plate tectonics, the "big bang" theory for the origin of the universe was substantially verified, spectacular progress was made in understanding the molecular basis of life, computers permeated every aspect of science and society, humans left footprints (and tire tracks) on the moon and sent probes to the outer reaches of the solar system -- to mention just a few things that transpired in science. Throughout it all, Scientific American kept me (and thousands like me, both scientists and non-scientists) authoritatively informed.

The authoritativeness of Scientific American stems from the fact that the articles are written by the experts who did the work. Scientific specialists are not usually noted for the lucidity of their prose, so it is something of a miracle that the magazine works at all. It worked during the years of my subscription for two reasons: the editors insured that the words that reached the pages were plain English; and the magazine's graphics were lucid and beautiful.

And let's not forget two luminous features of the magazine of that era; Philip Morrison's sparkling book reviews (later joined by spouse Phylis), and Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games.

It was once the pleasure of my wife and I to be entertained for an evening by Philip and Phylis Morrison at their home in Cambridge. The place was jammed to the gills with science books and science toys, a veritable playground for two insatiably curious and fun-loving minds. I can think of no higher honor I have received as a writer than Philip's appreciation of my Globe column.

And Martin Gardner? Another insatiably curious and fun-loving mind. I wish I could say I met him, but I read his column and books religiously, and now I have read his just-published autobiography Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, written at age 95 in a one-room assisted-living facility in Oklahoma, still curious and still having fun. He died in 2010, soon after finishing the book.

More on Martin tomorrow.