Martin Gardner, Mentor to Many
Mathematics education lost another good friend this past week, when Martin Gardner died at age 95. On the national level, he was an outstanding author of mathematics and science columns and books, being best known for making recreational mathematics a popular, acceptable activity. But, on the local level, Martin Gardner was my mentor and private tutor, even though we never met (though we did correspond by mail once).
I use the term "mentor" because as a beginning and continuing teacher, I read, re-read, adapted, and integrated his "Mathematical Games" columns into my classroom. At library book sales, I bought old copies of Scientific American so that I eventually built a file drawer containing all of his "Mathematical Games" columns, starting in January, 1957. And now, I also own almost all of his books, which include addenda to his reprinted columns.
I use the terms "private tutor" because Martin Gardner taught me so much about mathematics that is never mentioned in traditional textbooks, expecially that mathematics can be fun, interesting, unusual, and filled with challenges. From his columns, I first learned about geometric reptiles, mathematical magic, the fourth dimension, M.C. Escher, mathematical sculptures, Penrose tilings, polyominoes, Soma cube, etc.
After gaining a bachelor's degree in philosophy at the University of Chicago, Martin started out as an author of content for children's magazines. Once his article on paper-folding flexagons led to an article in Scientific American in 1957, he wrote their column "Mathematical Games" for 25 years. Though other authors have tried to follow him and his style, none have succeeded.
In an interview, Allyn Jackson, AMS Notices editor, noted that Martin Gardner "opened the eyes of the general public to the beauty and fascination of mathematics and inspired many to go on to make the subject their life's work." Yes, I and many of my teaching colleagues are testament to this claim!
In addition to recreational mathematics, Martin Gardner was a well-known skeptic of the paranormal, often writing columns for the Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He also was a respected magician.
Martin Gardner, we will all miss you...but your fantastic legacy will live on!