Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Undiluted Hocus-Pocus


Reading Martin Gardner's autobiography is like spending a pleasant afternoon in the company of a 95-year-old man with sharp memories and a twinkle in his eye. Oh wait, that's what it is.

Gardner comes across as a straight-arrow sort of guy who likes his poetry rhymed and his art realistic. I get the impression that he liked keeping busy and sniffed at pretention and idle chit-chat. Certainly, with 25 years of the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American and dozens of books, he must have kept his squeaky-clean nose to the grindstone.

And good for the rest of us. I derived so much pleasure from his Mathematical Games columns that just reading about how they happened makes me want to go back and read them all again. Alas, at some point in my crowded life I tossed the collected magazines. Let's hope the college library doesn't do the same.

I enjoyed Gardner's reminiscences of his time at the University of Chicago during the reign of Hutchins and Adler, and his doggerel verse:
Hutchins and Adler
Had careers of great promise
Before both were shot down
By the books of St. Thomas.
I had my own take on Hutchins and Adler here.

Gardner, of course, was a great debunker of pseudoscience of every sort, most famously, perhaps, in his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, the spirit of which inspired many a Globe column. In Hocus-Pocus, he quotes Carl Sagan approvingly: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Then he ends the book with of sturdy confession of faith in a personal God and the afterlife. One can almost hear the collective sigh of his many skeptical friends.

Give this to Gardner: He concedes all the best arguments to the skeptics, and admits that he has no proofs for his beliefs. He believes for emotional reasons, he says; it makes him feel good. I'll give him that. His life and work certainly made me feel good.

(More on this tomorrow.)