Sunday, May 23, 2010

R.I.P. Martin Gardner...

Martin Gardner died Saturday. He was 95. I first became aware of him 41 years ago, when I was 19, and just discovering Scientific American. He wrote a monthly column called Mathematical Games for that magazine. Math has never come easily to me, and I was never able to solve his puzzles, and yet somehow he always managed to intrigue me, and I looked forward to his column each month.

Then I discovered The Annotated Alice, (first published in 1960). If you haven't read it, this book is every geek/trivia lover's idea of heaven. Gardner was an expert on Lewis Carroll, and often described as a kindred spirit. In The Annotated Alice, he explains where Carroll was going (or coming from): the riddles, jokes and literary references as well as the context in which much of the book was written. In the first few pages, when Alice speculates, "I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth!"'s the beginning of Gardner's footnote: In Carroll's day there was considerable popular speculation about what would happen if one fell through a hole that went straight through the center of the earth. Plutarch had asked the question and many famous thinkers, including Francis Bacon and Voltaire, had argued about it. Galileo (Dialogo dei Massimi Sistemi Giornata Seconda, Florence edition of 1842, Vol. 1, pages 251-52) gave the correct answer: the object would fall with increasing speed but decreasing acceleration, until it reached the center of the earth, at which spot it's acceleration would be zero. Thereafter it would slow down in speed, with increasing deceleration, until it reached the opening at the other end. Then it would fall back again. By ignoring air resistance and the coriolis force resulting from the earth's rotation (unless the hole ran from pole to pole), the object would oscillate back and forth forever. Air resistance of course would eventually bring it to rest at the earth's center. The interested reader should consult "A Hole through the Earth," by the French astronomer Camille Flammarion, in The Strand Magazine, Vol. 28 (1909), page 348, if only to look at the lurid illustrations." I'll concede there are readers to whom that footnote doesn't sing, but I'm not one of them. It sang to me; from that point on I was hooked on Gardner, who even translates Jabberwocky ("Twas brillig, and the slithy toves..." Bryllg (derived from the verb to bryl or broil), "the time of broiling dinner, i.e., the close of the afternoon..."

As if that weren't enough, Gardner was also an outspoken foe of pseudoscience, writing columns for The Skeptical Inquirer. He was a terrific writer, and a terrific man. If you haven't read The Annotated Alice, check it out. He will be missed.

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