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Martin Gardner: The Most Interesting Man in the World

By posted at 6:00 am on February 12, 2014 8

570_Martin Gardner

You may think that the most interesting man in the world has a scraggly gray beard, drinks Mexican beer, and hangs out with women half his age. But you’re dead wrong. I discovered the real deal, the authentic most interesting man in the world, on the shelves on my local public library when I was a freshman in high school. His name was Martin Gardner.

covercovercovercoverI first stumbled upon Gardner’s work while rummaging around a bottom shelf in the rear of the library, right below my favorite book in the building, Jean Hugard’s The Royal Road to Card Magic. The Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, published by Gardner in 1959, represented a big leap from Hugard, yet I devoured as much of it as my 14-year-old mind could comprehend. Much of the math was too advanced for me, but the parts I understood charmed and delighted me. I came back the next week to check out The Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions. I followed up with Gardner’s The Numerology of Dr. Matrix and Unexpected Hangings, also on the shelves on the library, and soon purchased a copy of his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science at a used bookstore. Around this same time, I bought, at great expense, a brand new hardbound copy of 536 Curious Problems and Puzzles by Henry Ernest Dudeney, and learned that this treasure trove of strange and peculiar diversions had been edited by (yes, you guessed it) Martin Gardner. I felt like shouting out: “Mama, there’s that man again!”

Later I learned that Gardner’s expertise extended far beyond math and science. I can’t even begin to explain my delight when I discovered that Gardner fraternized with magicians. During my teen years, I spent countless hours practicing card tricks and sleights-of-hand — I never realized my ambition of performing as a card magician, but the finger dexterity later helped when I switched my focus to playing jazz piano — and I was thrilled to learn that Gardner knew Dai Vernon, Frank Garcia, Paul Curry, Ed Marlo, and other masters of playing card prestidigitation. They were not household names. In my mind, someone like Dai Vernon was way too cool to be known by the uninitiated. But these were precisely the kind of mysterious masterminds of obscure arts that Martin Gardner would include among his buddies.

And finally as a humanities student at Stanford I learned about Martin Gardner’s contributions as literary critic and scholar. His annotated guide to Lewis Carroll is a classic work of textual deconstruction (although Gardner would never have used that term), and my boyhood hero also applied his sharp analytical mind to deciphering the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.K. Chesterton, and L. Frank Baum. I could continue the list, but you get the idea. Whatever your interests — whether the theory of relativity or “Jabberwocky,” the prisoner’s dilemma or a mean bottom deal from a clean deck, Martin Gardner was your man. He ranks among the greatest autodidacts and polymaths of the 20th century. Or, as I prefer to say, he was the most interesting man in the world, the fellow I would invite to that mythical dinner party where all parties, living or dead, are compelled to accept your invitation.

coverBut now comes the sad denouement. I have just finished Martin Gardner’s last book. Gardner died in 2010 at the age of 95, with more than 100 books to his credit, and his final work, a posthumously published memoir entitled Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner, was recently released by Princeton University Press. Here my guru and sage brought together, over the course of two hundred pages, the full range of his interests — math, magic, philosophy, stories, poetry, science, religion, politics — and combined these disparate topics with an account of his private life and intellectual development.

I enjoyed every page of this book. Gardner’s own path to mathe-magical stardom fascinated me, but his frank, colorful accounts of the many smart and influential people he met along the way are equally compelling. What a cast of characters! Here you will encounter Mortimer Adler, the tireless advocates of “great books” education; Isaac Asimov, a populist intellectual similar to Gardner in so many ways; scam-debunker James Randi, philosopher Rudolf Carnap, author Thornton Wilder, social critic Paul Goodman, artist Salvador Dalí, cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, and many other intriguing individuals. But the star is always Gardner himself, the man who can mix so easily with such diverse demigods, show them a trick or puzzle, or tell them something they’ve never heard before.

James Randi tries to explain Gardner’s peculiar appeal in an afterword to Undiluted Hocus-Pocus. Wherever he traveled, Randi would find himself “mobbed as soon as my acquaintance with Martin came up for discussion.” He recalls a lecture he gave to a group of IBM systems engineers, who “besieged” him afterwards, trying to learn more about Mr. Gardner. They wanted Randi to “settle whether or not Martin was an actual individual, or perhaps an amalgamation of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and maybe a magician colleague of mine…They were appropriately amazed and edified when I assured them that this paragon was actually a single person, a real human being, and quite as accomplished as he appeared to be.” I should add, for those unaware of Mr. Randi, that he is sometimes known as the “Amazing Randi” — a name he picked up as a magician and continued to earn in later years as a detector of frauds in the fields of parapsychology and occultism. How revealing that the Amazing Randi should find that his friend Martin Gardner is, in the minds of his audience, far more amazing.

How does one get to be as amazing as Martin Gardner? I’m sure I’m not the only reader who picked up this book seeking an answer to that very question. What secret skill or inborn gift allowed this youngster from Tulsa, Oklahoma to learn so much about so many subjects? Gardner’s modesty, evident throughout this book, makes it hard to pierce the mystery. But clearly his unflagging curiosity played a key part, as well as his connoisseur’s taste for the cryptic, the beguiling, and the enchanting. The same penetrating scrutiny that led him to discover the workings of a magic trick or the solution of a mathematical puzzle also spurred him to decipher literary texts and scientific theories or anything else that came within his purview. In other words, Gardner succeeded so well at his work because, for him, it never seemed like work. He only wrote about subjects that captivated him, and this overpowering enthusiasm was apparent to his readers, who usually came to share it.

Even those who think they know Martin Gardner well will learn new things about him in Undiluted Hocus-Pocus. He analyzes political topics that rarely showed up in his books. He outlines his own theory of religion, a peculiar hybrid of belief and disbelief that will probably irritate atheists, Christians, pantheists, and members of every other sect and anti-sect with its fanciful explanations. Above all, we get a sense of Gardner the family man, as husband, son, father, and grandfather, and learn — what we probably surmised from his good-natured, gentle writing — that he handled these familial roles with grace and devotion.

coverThese may be Martin Gardner’s final words, but they aren’t the last words on Martin Gardner. Those who want to understand his intellectual development in more detail will want to read many of his other works, most notably The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, which takes on many themes developed in Undiluted Hocus-Pocus and draws them out in greater detail. And there is still a need for biography by an outside party who can tell the story of this remarkable man in more detail than this 200-page memoir offers. But for the time being, Undiluted Hocus-Pocus is the best short guide to a man with a very long CV. If you don’t know the most interesting man in the world, start with this appetizer, but be ready to come back for more.

Image via Wikimedia Commons





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8 Responses to “Martin Gardner: The Most Interesting Man in the World”

  1. Edward Champion
    at 7:35 am on February 12, 2014

    “You may think that the most interesting man in the world has a scraggly gray beard, drinks Mexican beer, and hangs out with women half his age.”

    Well, someone’s projecting here. A midlife crisis, Ted? I’m sorry to inform you that you’ll never be one hundredth as interesting as Martin Gardner, although I will certainly applaud any half-hearted, late-life efforts to climb Everest like Brian Blessed (also more interesting than you) or write an essay that doesn’t contain the kind of bubbly and trite exclamations one expects from a schoolgirl passing a note in class.

  2. CJ
    at 8:47 am on February 12, 2014

    Ed: Maybe he’s referring to Ernest Hemingway?

  3. Dunbar Humbly
    at 9:00 am on February 12, 2014

    Haha, it’s a reference to a commercial? I MUST ALWAYS REACT WITH SNIDE DERISION BECAUSE I AM AN IMPORTANT BOOK READER.

  4. Jacques F.
    at 11:43 am on February 12, 2014

    Who’s the hipsterest? Writer unironically referencing a Dos Equis commercial in a Millions essay or commenting writer who has not seen a Dos Equis commercial.

  5. CaptTu
    at 12:38 am on February 13, 2014

    He is referring to the Dos Equis commercials…. Not himself. Stay thirsty my friends.

  6. Dave
    at 9:21 am on February 13, 2014

    “Haha, it’s a reference to a commercial? I MUST ALWAYS REACT WITH SNIDE DERISION BECAUSE I AM AN IMPORTANT BOOK READER.”

    +1

  7. CLANG GIRL ON THE INTERNET GIRL CLANG CLANG
    at 7:36 pm on February 17, 2014

    My father was an ardent admirer of Gardner, with practically a full collection of his works from Aha! to Visitors From Oz, and his books of mathematics, puzzles, and scientific skepticism shaped my childhood world. Of course I idolised James Randi as well, even before I knew we shared outlaw sexual identities as well as magic and mathematical interests, and I practised card magic until I learned that my hands would never grow enough to make backpalming look legitimate.

    My favorite of Gardner’s books as a child was his annotated The Hunting of the Snark, combining Lewis Carroll’s logical nonsense with Gardner’s excellent sense for puzzles. Other highly worthy puzzle books for your daughters include Raymond Smullyan’s The Lady or The Tiger,and What is the Name of this Book? (particularly appropriate for the vampire-obsessive).

    Anyone who uses “schoolgirl” as an insult synonymous with “bubbly” and “trite” can, of course, go and fuck themselves with an unsuitable hammer. A more correct way to offhandedly dismiss the textual output of young girls is to say that their self-importance is “gothic” and their stylings “baroque”. I thank you.

  8. Jennie Mcmasters
    at 5:11 pm on July 18, 2014

    ….Add “Captain Kutchie Pelaez” To Make This The All-Time Greatest Film Ever Made!….

    …Could. “Clint” Eastwood. Possibly Be Competing With “Captain Kutchie

    Pelaez” For The Position Of “The World’s Most Interesting Man”..

    Perhaps?…But Then Again Perhaps He Is Just Waiting For “Kutchie Pelaez

    and Frankie Valli” To “Make His Day”!…Ha, Go Figure!….

    ….We

    Heard A Few Years Back That Megyn Kelly Of Fox News, Really Loved Her

    Some Of Captain Kutchie’s And Anita Pelaez’s Famous Key Lime Pies! Could

    That Make Megyn “The Most Interesting Lady In The World?….I Guess “NO”

    On That One, That One Would Have To Be “The Lovely –Mrs. Anita Pelaez”

    The Queen Of The Key Lime Pie World!

    ….I sure hope that this will be a great opportunity for everyone to

    see some of “Don Rickle’s Scenes” from his productions of his classic hits

    “Tales From Kutcharitaville”. You Do know that Don Rickles and Johnny Carson

    together produced those comedy hits about their friend “Mr. Kutchie

    Pelaez” and their wild and crazy exploits of Kutchie’s Key West and The

    World of Key Lime Pies from the perspective of (Johnny Carson, Don

    Rickles, Kutchie Pelaez and Steve Martins Eyes!) What a Hoot Those

    Classic Hits Surely Were. Don’t miss them, be sure to tune-in next

    month. We Laughed Until We Cried Watching Those Funny Movies. “The Tales

    From Kutcharitaville”, I Think That They May Still Be Available In A

    Boxed Set. Maybe Try Amazon. Good Luck.

    You Know, It’s No Wonder That Everyone Calls “Captain Kutchie

    Pelaez”..The Most Interesting Man In The World! Did You Know That

    Kutchie Drinks Those Wonderful Mixed Drinks Named In His Honor Called

    “Kutcharitas”.?. There A Hell Of A Lot Better Than Any Mexican Beers.

    And Much Stronger To Boot!

    ….That Sunken Ship In The News These Days,

    ….It’s Been Resting Down On The Bottom Of The Sea Since Way Back In

    1857, “Mel Fisher” Even Overlooked That One! “Yankee Jack and Micheal

    McCloud Now Have Reason To Write Another Song.

    ….Hell, We Can’t Find A Boeing 777 That’s Been Lost Only A Little Over

    A Few Months Now! Could It Be Because The Jet Had No Silver and Gold Aboard,

    Just People?….Go Figure……

    ….Good Thing That All The ….(“Anita And Kutchie Pelaez’s Key West Key

    Lime Pie Shops”)..Are All Showing Increasing Pie Sales Throughout All

    They’re Areas Of Distribution. Consumers Just Never Seem To Reach

    They’re Fill Of Those “Yummy Key Lime Pies” That The “Peleaz’s Working

    Partner Team” Continues To Produce. They Have Been Called “Love At First

    Bite”. Everyone Agrees, That The Loving Couple Have Been Baking They’re

    Culinary Delectables Over 40-Years Now!….Isn’t She

    Wonderful?….”AAAHHHH”, The Magic Of The Gorgeous “Mrs. Anita Pelaez”

    Well She Is Something Else!….

    ….Who The Hell Does That “Kutchie Pelaez” Think That He Is?….”Frankie Valli” Or Some Big-Shot Like That?

    ….It’s No Wonder That People Are All Calling Him “The Most Interesting Man In The World”,…Big Girls Don’t Cry…Do They?….

    ….Don’t Cha Just Love Em!?….We Sure Do!….It is A Well Known Fact

    That “Captain Kutchie Pelaez” Knows Who Put The Bomp In The Bomp Shoo

    Bomp Shoo Bomp And The Rama In The Rama Lama Ding Dong!.He Even Knows

    Who Put The Dip In The Dip Da Dip Da Dip!…How Cool Is That?….

    ….a-good-1-4-u-2-n-joy-ok!..

    .”Very Interesting”!….

    ….”Frankie Valli and Kutchie Pelaez”..Did Make-It As Big As “Frank Sanatra”.

    ….”Yeah”

    A Few Wise Guys They Certainly Were “Frankie Valli, Kutchie Pelaez and

    Joe Pesci”!….Together “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight”!…..

    ….Mafiosi Wanna-Bee’s. The Key Lime Pie “Wild Bunch”. They’ve Got Everyone Shaking In They’re Flip-Flops!….

    ….Eli Wallach, Be Careful, Don’t Eat The “Cannoli’s”!…They’re Killer!….

    ….They Lived!…They Really Did!…Just Ask “Levi”!….

    ….I’d Give My Left “Nut” To Set Down With “Captain Kutchie Pelaez,
    Frankie Valli, Terry Levi, Joe Pesci, Bob Gaudio, Bob Crewe, Paul

    Shaffer, Bob De Niro, Tommy DeVito, Martin Scorsese And Clint East Wood!
    Rub Elbows And Shoot The s*** With That Whole Crew Of “Good Fellows” Or
    “Wise Guys” Or Whatever The Hell You Want To Call Them!….”Who
    Wouldn’t”?….

    ….I Believe That “Kutchie” First Sang “My Eyes Adored You” And “Can’t
    Take My Eyes Off Of You” To His Lovely Bride “Anita” Way Back In The
    Seventies! ….Sounds Like A Love Story To Us!…A Very Good Yarn! “You”

    “You’re Good You”….

    ….That “Captain Kutchie” Always Lands Back On His Feet. No Matter How
    Tough The Situation Is He Always Comes Back Up On The Top Of The Heap,
    King Of The Hill! Everyone Knows That! Never Count The Captain Out No

    Matter How Down The Chips Appear!….

    …Remember That He Is Not Only “The World Famous Captain Kutchie
    Pelaez” But Please Keep In Mind That “Captain Kutchie” Is Also
    Considered “The Most Interesting Man In The World”!….Why Else Would

    Everyone Be Talking About Him And His Wild And Crazy Exploits?….His
    Gorgeous Wife “Anita” And They’re Famous Key Lime Pies!….

    ….Yeah, You’re Good You. No You’re “DAMN GOOD YOU”….

    ….Also Add “The Two Yutes”….

    ….Marriage Lasts Forever and Ever, Two People Become One!
    A Covenant Between A Husband, His Wife And The Lord “Jesus” The Christ!
    Marriage, The Same Yesterday Today Tomorrow And Forever More! True Love Never Changes!
    Just Ask “Captain Kutchie Pelaez” He Knows!….That What The Lord Puts Together Can Never Be Broken!….The “Captain Kutchie” Really Knows His Stuff. He’s Mind Blowing To Say The Least!…

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