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Martin Gardner, Genius Of Recreational Mathematics

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And April is Mathematics Awareness Month. This year, mathematicians are celebrating the contributions of a guy named Martin Gardner, who was born a hundred years ago. Now, his name may not be as well-known as Isaac Newton or Archimedes, but a lot of people think of Martin Gardner as the greatest math guy of all time. We have our own very own math guy, Keith Devlin, who is a huge fan. He's online from studios at Princeton University, where he's a visiting professor. Keith, thanks for being with us again.

KEITH DEVLIN: (Laughing) Thanks for having me on, Scott.

SIMON: And how do we appreciate Martin Gardner?

DEVLIN: Boy, if you're in mathematics, he's a huge, towering figure. Actually, physically, he was a huge, towering figure, as well. Although, I never met him in person. But he had a column in Scientific American that ran from 1956 to 1981. And pretty well everybody in my generation who became a mathematician will say that one of the influences that made them do it was reading that column, "Mathematical Games," in Scientific American because it was an incredible antidote to the drudgery of school mathematics that we'd been subjected to like everybody else, to go back, read Scientific American and find that math was fun, stimulating, interesting and incredibly relevant to the world around us.

SIMON: And you had some kind of marginal personal connection with this great mathematician?

DEVLIN: I do, indeed. When I wrote my first popular book in mathematics in 1987, I was still in the U.K. And so of course the American press didn't know who I was. I'm not sure they know who I am now. But they certainly weren't going to review it. But Martin got hold of a copy. He bought a personal copy, and he wrote this long glowing review in the New York Review of Books. So he turned it into a minor bestseller immediately.

SIMON: Ah.

DEVLIN: And I always thought that was a really cool thing to do, that he just went out, spent his own money because he thought it deserved a review.

SIMON: That's wonderful. Do I get this right? He didn't actually study mathematics and was technically...

DEVLIN: Yeah, that's correct. He actually got a degree in philosophy at the University of Chicago...

SIMON: Yeah.

DEVLIN: ...Then became a writer. I think he started out writing for children's magazines. He just sort of stumbled into - well, he was - I should mention, one of his other interests was sort of magic, stage magic and conjuring.

SIMON: Yes.

DEVLIN: And he always blended that together with mathematics. And so he ended up writing an article for Scientific American on things called hexaflexagons, which are sort of shapes you make by folding up paper. It's not exactly origami. You make - you fold them up in a way that makes a sort of mathematical object. And he wrote an article about that. And the editor of Scientific American thought that was so neat. He said, we need a regular column from you. Once a month, start writing a column. And Martin started the next month, and this just took off immediately. He had an incredible touch with words. He could bring mathematics to life in a way that none of us who've followed in his footsteps have really been able to achieve.

SIMON: So are there people who are applying a trade in mathematics today who can - a lot of people, perhaps, who can trace their interests back to Martin Gardner?

DEVLIN: Oh, indeed. One of the interesting things was that, although he didn't have any formal training in mathematics, didn't have a PhD, never wrote a mathematical paper or such, many of the world's best mathematicians corresponded with him on a regular basis and actually regarded him as a colleague. And he wasn't going to prove theorems, but he had this knack of seeing things in a different way and expressing them in a different way.

And I think many of us found it very useful simply to bounce ideas off him because something that we might have thought was really complicated, Martin could come back in a flash almost and say, is this what you're saying? Because he was interested in making it simple so he could write about it for a general audience. But often, the mathematician would look at that and think, by golly, you're right. That is what I'm trying to say.

SIMON: And people who love Lewis Carroll have a special debt to him.

DEVLIN: Oh, indeed, yes. Because of his combined interests in mathematics and wordplay and logic, as well as sort of magic, he ended up writing a series of books, the most famous of which I think is called "The Annotated Alice." I'm not sure how much people realize this, but the author Lewis Carroll was a mathematician in England. And in his books, especially in the Alice books, there were many, many examples of mathematical wordplay and logical puzzles blended in.

SIMON: Yeah.

DEVLIN: And Martin went through all of Carroll's books and pointed out all of the ideas, the mathematical tricks that were there, and explained what was going on. So he really did bring out to the non-mathematician the clever mathematical ideas that mathematicians had already been able to observe in Carroll's writings.

SIMON: Well, Keith Devlin is our math guy. He's the Stanley Kelley, Jr. Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the math department at Princeton University. Keith, thanks so much for being with us.

DEVLIN: OK, nice to talk you again, Scott. Bye, bye.

SIMON: And if you'd like to find out more about Mathematics Awareness Month - and why not - you can go to MathAware.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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