Today, someone who had a big influence on my life (and whom I’ve never met) passed away: legendary recreational mathematician Martin Gardner. I learned about it from Phil Plait, of the Bad Astronomy blog, courtesy of his twitter feed. Phil writes up his own thoughts here:
I was first exposed to Gardner’s writings in Mathematical Games when I was still in grade school. Our local library used to give away books that they no longer wished in their collection, and at one point, they discarded a couple of decades worth of Scientific American. As a voracious reader of science, I carted dozens of issues home in my book bags over the span of a few days. While I had a wide variety of interests, I read two columns out of nearly every issue: C. L. Stong’s Amateur Scientist and Gardner’s Mathematical Games.
Others will cite Gardner’s greatest contributions as a skeptic, but the lasting impact that he has on me is conveying the mystery, the magic, and the fun of mathematics. It was through his pages that I first learned of John Conway’s “Game of Life” and cellular automata. Of the game Hex. Of Penrose tilings. Of public key cryptography. Of polyominoes. Of game theory. Flexagons. Polygonal dissections. Of machine learning. And dozens of puzzles that intrigued me for hundreds of hours.
I have eight or nine of his books, and still enjoy perusing them for puzzles I haven’t attacked before. His columns were often on cutting edge bits of mathematics, but neither tried to pander to the lowest common denominator, nor to be accessible to only a small mathematical priesthood: his work was accessible and challenging. He basically created recreational mathematics.
It’s hard to overemphasize that importance that the joy and exuberance that he brought to mathematics had on my life, and I’ve met dozens of others with similar stories.
Thanks for all your contributions Martin.
“He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”
Hamlet — Act 1, Scene 2