The Mathemagician

Another of my heroes has gone, but he had a good long run: Martin Gardner, celebrated for his highly influential "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American, died this May aged 95. Until the end, he was still writing and publishing new articles.

The creaking Langford shelves hold forty-odd of his many books, including all fifteen collections of "Mathematical Games". Gardner reliably made maths fascinating and fun by highlighting the weird stuff. Impossible objects, magic squares, mind-bending paradoxes, infinity, fractals, peculiar folded-paper constructs like hexaflexagons and hypercards ... the list went on. And became trickier with time as Gardner got steadily deeper into his subject. Serious gibbering ensued when a roomful of SF fans tried to play the card game Eleusis (first described in his June 1959 column, with a revised version appearing in July 1977), whose rules change with every hand. You win by being the first to deduce what on earth the rules are.

In the days before desktop PCs, mainframe computer sysops learned to dread Gardner's Scientific American revelations – like the 1970 column on "Life", a playerless game of cell-patterns that mutate according to set rules and demand to be programmed into a computer. Although machine time then cost serious money, vast amounts (mostly at universities) were furtively stolen for Life simulations and the discovery of strange, self-reproducing Life-forms. The game crept into SF too, in Piers Anthony's fairly dire novel OX and Greg Egan's far more ingenious Permutation City.

Gardner had many other enthusiasms, most famously the clobbering of pseudoscience. His early book on this subject, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, is highly entertaining but led to trouble in SF circles. Once he turned on the radio at 3am to hear John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding SF and a firm believer in both L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics and assorted mysterious mental powers, tell the world: "Mr Gardner is a liar!" Another hefty debunking volume is Science: Good, Bad and Bogus. He was a founder member of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and wrote many, many essays for its journal The Skeptic. (Note to subeditor: Americans insist on spelling it that way.)

There's more. Gardner's loves included fantasy and SF. He wrote little fiction – his best stories are collected as The No-Sided Professor – but for years contributed maths puzzles with a genre flavour to Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine. He was the first critic to write seriously appreciative essays on the Oz books by L Frank Baum; he even produced an Oz novel of his own, Visitors from Oz. In his masterly editions of Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice and The Annotated Snark, the unravelling of buried jokes and forgotten allusions can sometimes be more entertaining than Carroll himself.

Also fond of G.K. Chesterton's fantasies and Father Brown detective stories, Gardner wrote extensively about both. Indeed he repeated his footnoting efforts, rather less successfully, with The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown. Stephen Fry gave this a critical kicking in a Listener review that spelt its victim's surname "Gardiner".

When asked to write an alternate-history story in which the development of the SF genre itself was radically different, I invented a timeline where pulp-mag science fiction started on this side of the Atlantic with G.K. Chesterton's SF Magazine*, and everyone contributed to a vast franchise of spacegoing Father Brown stories. In this world, a scholarly footnote explained, Martin Gardner published the learned treatise Flambeau, Boskone and Ming the Merciless: The Annotated Father Brown Villains. That made him chuckle; but I should have included Stephen Fry.

David Langford still cherishes his typewritten letters from Martin Gardner, who didn't use computers.

* There really was a Chesterton magazine, G.K.'s Weekly, launched in 1925 – the year before Hugo Gernsback's pioneering SF magazine Amazing Stories.