Definitive Essay
© 5 Sep 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Reflections on the works of Martin Gardner.


Marting Gardner was a writer with many interests. I’ve heard he coined the term “‍recreational mathematics‍” and his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American was a long-running success. He delighted in sharing with the broader public oddities of math and science in as accessible a way as possible; his New Ambidextrous Universe remains the only source I’ve read for half a dozen significant ideas. He was a tireless debunker of the pseudoscience and paranormal phenomena. He had a vast love for and interest in many great authors. He was the first to attempt a biography of L. Frank Baum and helped found the International Wizard of Oz Club. He published deeply annotated versions of many books and poems; the two I’ve read (Alice in Wonderland and The Man who was Thursday) deserved the attention. And he was a lover of philosophy and wrote many reviews of philosophical works. I understand he also wrote some fiction, though I have never read it.

I first encountered Martin Gardner as a boy with his Unexpected Hanging and read many of his books in my teenage years. At the time I still rarely agree with him otherwise; not that his critiques and musings are unsound, but they are often incomplete and slightly beside the mark. Still, with maturity I have learned to enjoy the beauty of his mind and the art with which he describes his thoughts. I had little interest in anything beyond his presentation of mathematical and scientific oddities. A few years ago purchased his The Night is Large, a self-edited collection of 47 of his essays, and read it rather too quickly to really appreciate it. This summer I re-read that collection more slowly with much enjoyment. The final essay in the collection, “‍Surprise‍” from his The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, particularly impressed me.

The objective of “‍Surprise‍” is to explain Gardner’s position as a fideistic deist, and it does that clearly. But the impressive thing to me is how well those few pages sum up Gardner’s works as a whole. It is as if someone had said, “‍Martin, distill your whole life’s work into a single essay‍” and instead of laughing at the idea he replied “‍Good idea.‍” And then actually did it.

I wonder if Gardner would agree with me that “‍Surprise‍” was his definitive workAs he died a little over 2 years ago I cannot ask him. I wonder if he set out to write his soul in that piece or if it was a pleasant surprise. I wonder if he tried to make every one of his myriad essays such a summation and that was just his most successful. I wonder if my view of this essay is my own or if there is some summary quality to the essay that others would recognize as well. I wonder how much of that definitive quality is apparent to me only because I have read so much of Gardner’s works elsewhere, only because of the context I bring to his text.

Could I write a definitive essay? Could I do it before I turned 70? Would I know I had done so once I did? Would anyone else know?

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