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Undiluted Hocus-Pocus

Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Undiluted Hocus-Pocus
    Book Description:

    Martin Gardner wrote the Mathematical Games column for Scientific American for twenty-five years and published more than seventy books on topics as diverse as magic, philosophy, religion, pseudoscience, and Alice in Wonderland. His informal, recreational approach to mathematics delighted countless readers and inspired many to pursue careers in mathematics and the sciences. Gardner's illuminating autobiography is a disarmingly candid self-portrait of the man evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould called our "single brightest beacon" for the defense of rationality and good science against mysticism and anti-intellectualism.Gardner takes readers from his childhood in Oklahoma to his college days at the University of Chicago, his service in the navy, and his varied and wide-ranging professional pursuits. Before becoming a columnist for Scientific American, he was a caseworker in Chicago during the Great Depression, a reporter for the Tulsa Tribune, an editor for Humpty Dumpty, and a short-story writer for Esquire, among other jobs. Gardner shares colorful anecdotes about the many fascinating people he met and mentored, and voices strong opinions on the subjects that matter to him most, from his love of mathematics to his uncompromising stance against pseudoscience. For Gardner, our mathematically structured universe is undiluted hocus-pocus--a marvelous enigma, in other words.

    Undiluted Hocus-Pocus offers a rare, intimate look at Gardner's life and work, and the experiences that shaped both.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4798-3
    Subjects: Mathematics, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xxii)
    Persi Diaconis

    Like the hero of his celebrated short story, the “no-sided professor,” Martin Gardner was an insider and an outsider at the same time. I first met him in the late 1950s at New York’s 42nd Street Cafeteria. A magicians’ hangout on Saturday afternoons when the magic shops closed, it was a place where kids, serious amateurs, and professional magicians would traipse downstairs for coffee and “what’s new.” There was always something new: a sheet of rubber you could pass a coin through, a down-on-his-luck gambler who had spotted the boys (there were hardly any girls) handling cards and stepped inside...

    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
    Martin Gardner
    (pp. xxv-xxx)
    Martin Gardner

    Our brain is a small lump of organic molecules. It contains some hundred billion neurons, each more complex than a galaxy. They are connected in over a million billion ways. By what incredible hocus-pocus does this tangle of twisted filaments become aware of itself as a living thing, capable of love and hate, of writing novels and symphonies, feeling pleasure and pain, with a will free to do good and evil?

    Let me spread my cards on the table. I belong to a small group of thinkers called the “mysterians.” It includes Thomas Nagel, Colin McGinn, Jerry Fodor, also Noam...

    (pp. 1-9)

    I have always loved colors. All colors. To me the ability to see colors is one of God’s great blessings. (Yes, Virginia, there is a God. In my final chapter I explain why I call myself a philosophical theist.) Searching my brain for the earliest event I can recall, the best I can come up with is a memory involving colors while I was being carried in my father’s arms on a fine autumn day in Tulsa. The ground was covered with dead maple leaves. I pointed to a leaf and somehow indicated I wanted it. My dad picked it...

    (pp. 10-20)

    I attended grades one through six at Lee School, a redbrick building within walking distance of where I lived at 2187 South Owasso. The house was large enough to accommodate my grandmother Lucy; her brother, Uncle Owen; my younger brother, Jim; and later my sister, Judith. Lee School is still there. I have happy memories of my teachers, especially Mrs. Polk, who had all her students reading and memorizing large chunks of popular verse. I can still recite all of Longfellow’s “The Day Is Done” and the first stanza of Noyes’s “The Highwayman”:

    The wind was a torrent of darkness...

    (pp. 21-27)

    High school was like four years in prison. I hated it. With the exception of classes in mathematics and physics, I firmly believe that my years in high school were totally wasted. I particularly disliked history. It seemed concerned only with idiotic kings and queens, and meaningless religious wars that were like the one in Gulliver’s Travels fought over the proper way to crack an egg. The really important history, it seemed to me, was the history of science. Of all the vast changes in human life, most are the result of the steady progress of science and technology.


    (pp. 28-39)

    During my high school years I had two hobbies, chess and magic. Tulsa then had a room in the downtown Cole Building where every day, including Sundays, chess players would congregate. Mr. Cole, the building’s owner, was a top chess player, probably on the master level. Every Saturday I would take a bus to the Cole Building, where I always found someone willing to play a friendly game. Of course I never played Mr. Cole or any other “heavyweights,” as Cole called them. They included a lawyer named Neff and a salesman named Higgenbotham, and later a teenager called Bright...

    (pp. 40-46)

    Chicago! Dear old Loopy, as Christopher Morley called it in a little book of praise for the Windy City.

    Having lived in Chicago for some fifteen years, I got to know the city well, on foot and with the help of streetcars and the elevated. It was my first introduction to a giant metropolis. Years later, when I lived a comparable time in Manhattan, I never felt the same about the city. It was too much like Chicago, but less friendly. Chicago is spread out. New York City, squeezed on a small island, is jammed upward. Tables in restaurants, and...

    (pp. 47-52)

    Robert Hutchins brought to the University of Chicago a philosopher even more bizarre than Mortimer Adler. He was Richard Peter McKeon. At that time McKeon was the leader of a so-called Aristotelian School of literary criticism. Years later he became top promoter of a philosophical movement called pluralism. It was something like what in anthropology is called cultural relativism. A cultural relativist is not allowed to say that culture A is superior or inferior to culture B. Cultures are obviously different, and one can describe the differences, but there are no standards for judging one culture superior to another. Philosophical...

    (pp. 53-61)

    When I first entered the University of Chicago I was in the grip of a crude Protestant fundamentalism. It was partly the result of my admiration for a counselor at Camp Mishawaka, a camp in northern Minnesota where my parents sent me for several summers. His name was George Getgood. He was also a Sunday school teacher at Tulsa’s First Presbyterian Church. His sister, more devout than he, was one of the church’s missionaries. For many months I attended the church’s Sunday morning services and Getgood’s class, though without becoming a church member.

    It was Getgood, I believe, who introduced...

  13. 8 CHICAGO, I
    (pp. 62-75)

    During my freshman year at the University of Chicago I shared a room on Ellis Avenue with Merle Giles, a high school friend. Later I stayed for a short time at a dormitory across from Ellis, then moved to a dozen or so different rooming houses over the next four years, the addresses of which I no longer remember except one—that of the Homestead Hotel at 5610 Dorchester. It was an old mansion long since replaced by an apartment building.

    There is a chapter about the hotel in my novel The Flight of Peter Fromm. Its rooms were labeled...

  14. 9 CHICAGO, II
    (pp. 76-87)

    Dr. Ben Reitman was guest speaker at a sociology class I audited—a class taught by Professor Ernest Watson Burgess. Ben began his talk by saying, “I don’t want any of you to think I’m a Communist. I’m only an anarchist.” All I remember now of what he said afterward was about his passionate love affair (it lasted a decade) with Emma Goldman, the most famous of female anarchists—that they broke up primarily because he wanted children and she didn’t. Later Ben had a son and four daughters by several marriages.

    I had two other contacts with Ben. One...

    (pp. 88-97)

    After a year of graduate work I convinced myself I had no desire ever to teach philosophy. I wanted to be a writer. Seeing no point in aiming for a higher degree, I left the university and returned to Tulsa.

    My dad was a friend of an Irishman named Andy Rowley, then oil editor of the Tulsa Tribune. When he told my father he needed an assistant, my dad suggested me. After being interviewed by Rowley, I was hired by the Tribune at a salary of fifteen dollars a week. My main job was to visit daily all the oil...

    (pp. 98-110)

    The time has come, in this slovenly autobiography, to speak about my mother and father. My dad, James Henry Gardner, grew up on a farm in Sonora, Kentucky, a small town not far from Louisville. His father, for whom I am named, was a gentleman farmer. Chores were all done by hired hands. He had two sons, my dad and Uncle Emmett, about whom I have written in a previous chapter.

    After graduating from the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, my father worked for a while for the U.S. Geological Survey, mapping rivers in the then stateless New Mexico, and...

  17. 12 THE NAVY, I
    (pp. 111-118)

    After Hitler snatched France, a simpleminded Stalin, like Neville Chamberlain in England, signed a peace treaty with Hitler. All over the Chicago campus student Communists were wearing buttons that said, “The Yanks Are Not Coming.” When Hitler, true to form, invaded Russia, the buttons vanished, and the Communist Party line instantly shifted to urging the United States to declare war on Germany.

    After a draft got underway, the army classified me 4F because I was underweight. Convinced that entering the war was justified, I tried enlisting in the navy. To my surprise I was accepted. Aware of my job in...

  18. 13 THE NAVY, II
    (pp. 119-124)

    Aside from Bermuda and Cuba’s Gitmo Bay, England was the only foreign nation I was able to visit during my sea years, and then only the city of Liverpool. Many of its buildings were still in ruins from Hitler’s bombs. I became familiar with the pubs on Lime Street where the hookers congregated. I recall helping a young prostitute put on her overcoat. She said something in a dialect that I interpreted as “Sir, your kindness is crushing.” At a great used bookstore I bought several books by William James, which I mailed to my parents to keep for me....

    (pp. None)
    (pp. 125-133)

    After the war and a brief stay in Tulsa, I moved back to the University of Chicago area to a dreary single room off Fifty-Fifth Street. My window opened on an air shaft. When my sister, Judith, visited me, she was so shocked by how dirty the window was that she insisted on giving it a scrubbing. My only possessions then were an alarm clock, some books, but no radio. I kept notes of my reading and speculations on three-by-five file cards that I kept in ladies’ shoe boxes, which I picked up free from shoe stores. When I cut...

    (pp. 134-149)

    The second luckiest event in my life—the first was meeting Charlotte—was my association with Scientific American. Here’s how it came about.

    One afternoon I was visiting a New York City stockbroker named Royal V. Heath. We were friends through a mutual interest in magic. Heath had written a little book on number tricks, and I had published a series of articles on mathematical magic in Scripta Mathematica. This was a journal edited by Jekuthiel Ginsburg, of Yeshiva University, who also sponsored gatherings at the university to hear mathematicians give talks on recreational topics. My articles were later made...

    (pp. 150-159)

    My reputation as a debunker of bad science began with an article in the Antioch Review titled “The Hermit Scientist.” It was about crank scientists who work in isolation from genuine scientists. A high school friend, John Eliot, was then living in New York City as a literary agent. He came across my article, realized he had known me in Tulsa, and came to see me. He thought my piece could be expanded to a book, and persuaded me to give it a try. I went to work and soon had enough of a manuscript for John to take to...

    (pp. 160-172)

    Ron Graham is one of the many famous mathematicians I got to know well through my Scientific American columns. We collaborated on a column about minimal Steiner trees that gave me an Erdös number of 2. If a mathematician shares a byline on a paper with Paul Erdös, the great number theorist, he gets an Erdös number of 1. If he shares a byline with someone who has an Erdös number of 1, he gets an Erdös number of 2, and so on. The Erdös Graph shows how the number holders are linked. I also got a 2 with Frank...

  24. 18 CHARLOTTE
    (pp. 173-184)

    Like most men I had my share of girlfriends before I fell in love—with Charlotte. About these friends I will have nothing to say except that they were wonderful, and I half-loved them all.

    Throughout my life I have thought of myself as not being attractive to women. I am a self-centered intellectual, indifferent to all religions, not tall and handsome. I’m five feet eight, and skinny. I have never weighed more than 130 pounds. In one way I resemble one of my heroes, Sherlock Holmes, who, Watson tells us, “loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian...

  25. 19 BOB AND BETTY
    (pp. 185-190)

    I first met Bob Murray at Camp Mishawaka, the summer camp my brother and I attended. Decades later my two sons and three grandchildren would also go there. Jim and his wife, Amy, later became Mishawaka counselors.

    Like friend John Shaw, Bob was raised a Catholic. Unlike Shaw he later abandoned the faith. The three of us formed a kind of triumvirate that lasted throughout our lives.

    Betty Mitchell, a few years younger than I, lived across the street from the house where I grew up. I don’t remember how she and Bob met. It’s possible I introduced them. At...

  26. 20 GOD
    (pp. 191-194)

    When many of my fans discovered that I believed in God and even hoped for an afterlife, they were shocked and dismayed. They seemed to think that if I doubted Uri Geller could bend spoons with his mind, I must be an atheist! Allow me here a chapter to clarify what I mean by the word God.

    I do not mean the God of the Bible, especially the God of the Old Testament, or any other book that claims to be divinely inspired. For me God is a “Wholly Other” transcendent intelligence, impossible for us to understand. He or she...

    (pp. 195-208)

    I decided to end these disheveled memoirs with a few words about my basic philosophical opinions. In the introduction to Gilbert Chesterton’s Heretics, he contends that the most important thing to know about anyone is his or her fundamental beliefs. Here is the passage:

    But there are some people, nevertheless—and I am one of them—who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We...

    (pp. 209-214)
    James Randi

    Where to begin? I’ve really no idea where—or exactly when—I first met Martin Gardner. I believe that moment may have occurred in the offices of Scientific American magazine almost seven decades ago, but it seems that I have always known him. He became such a fixture in my life, such a dependable part of my world; I was so very accustomed to picking up the telephone to call him, or answering a call from him that would always result in an improvement of my knowledge of the universe. Alas, no more . . .

    For twenty-five years, Martin...

  29. INDEX
    (pp. 215-234)