Last night I heard of Martin Gardner’s death at the age of ninety-five. When someone lives into their nineties death is not unexpected but in Gardner’s case it still saddens me. Martin Gardner’s famous Mathematical Games column set a standard for mathematical exposition that has yet to be equaled. He proved, month after month for twenty-five years, that popular writing did not have to dumb things down to misleading trivialities but could, in fact, inspire, thrill and challenge specialists and children alike. There probably isn’t a mathematician, physicist, computer scientist or engineer of my generation that didn’t grow up reading Gardner’s column.
When I was getting ready to teach mathematics as a CUSO volunteer in Ghana I decided to collect all of Martin Gardner’s columns. During my school years Gardner’s columns served as an antidote to curriculum mathematics. Curriculum mathematics, in many public school systems, is horribly ahistorical. There is no rhyme or reason why certain mathematical topics are covered and others, the vast majority, are ignored. Gardner’s columns filled in the gaps and resurrected the beauty of even the dullest bits of curriculum mathematics. As a new mathematics teacher I couldn’t think of a better resource so I wisely photocopied Gardner and ignored textbooks.
In Ghana I lived without TV, radio, recorded music and sometimes newspapers but I didn’t care! On many nights I slowly read through my big pile of Mathematical Games photocopies. The effect of reading all the columns was striking. Taken one at a time Gardner’s entries were always interesting but when read from start to finish you come away stunned by the level of erudition. Genius is an abused word. Our silly media makes everyone a genius for 15 minutes. In Gardner’s case the word is apt. I will miss the man.