Monday, May 24, 2010

RIP Martin Gardner

Sad news today, Martin Gardner died. He is best remembered for his "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American which ran from the mid-1950s until the early 1980s. Few people know that his formal training was in philosophy and while at the University of Chicago he studied under Rudolf Carnap, the driving force in the Logical Positivist movement who fled Nazism with a fellowship that led him to the U.S. I teach Gardner's magnificent The Annotated Alice in my first year seminar, "Einstein in Wonderland: Physics, Philosophy, and Other Nonsense" which is the single best source for understanding everything Lewis Carroll was up to in his two Alice books. (To be honest, I used to have the students buy a cheaper non-annotated version which allowed me to sit there with my Gardner version and seem like the world's foremost expert on every line of the text...)

Gardner was the Will Shortz of mathematics, someone who left you with the sense that mathematics is enjoyable, playful, and something you wanted to be a part of your daily life. This is no small feat in a culture full of math-phobes where even Ph.D.'s will proudly say "I can't do mathematics." No doubt this is due in part to the way we teach math and to the broad scale anti-intellectualism in the larger culture, but whatever the cause, it is sad and problematic.

His writings blazed a trail for pop math writers who followed: Douglas Hofstadter, Rudy Rucker, Ian Stewart, Amir Aczel, and John Allen Paulos, among them. Sadly, popular math books have rarely had the readership of popular science despite high quality writing and an utterly fascinating subject matter. So this then will be the question for today. How do we get recreational mathematics to become more mainstream? how do we get mathematical questions into the public consciousness? We have sudoku puzzles next to the crossword and jumble, but how do we take the next step to making mathematics games something common? How do we get the history of mathematics and the stories of mathematicians into our collective consciousness? How do we make mathematics more a part of our culture?