net.wars: Restaurant mathematics

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 17 June 2005

When I was 13, I had a clever, amusing, and slightly eccentric math teacher named Nancy Rosenberg. She could knock you out of your chair with her directness, and although she was a dedicated math teacher she could on occasion sidetrack herself. I remember, for example, the day she arrived in class so wildly enthusiastic about the new book she was reading and how funny it was that she made us all promise not to tell our parents and then spent the class reading aloud to us the first chapter of Portnoy's Complaint. (I was 13 in 1967, if you can't do the arithmetic quickly enough in your head.)

Wendy M Grossman

One of Mrs. Rosenberg's other enthusiasms was the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American, written by Martin Gardner and then approaching the middle of its run from 1957 to 1986. Under her guidance, not to say insistence, we made hexaflexagons as Christmas tree ornaments and didn't think it was weird. I acquired several of the books Gardner published of his columns and had a plstic set of Tangrams and a Soma cube (long before Rubik inspired Tom Paxton to write, "It's only a game…like dying is only death."). My father and I played Nim by drawing on paper restaurant placemats whenever we went out to eat anywhere.

I went to college, concluded I wasn't meant to be a mathematician, and did other things. Then in 1982, I first heard of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). CSICOP had sent a friend of mine, who was writing a piece about an appearance at Cornell by James Randi, Gardner's book  Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus, a then recently published compilation of columns he'd written about science for CSICOP's magazine, Skeptical Inquirer. He's still writing that column, by the way, bringing to it not only his profound interest in science but his equally solid interest in magic as well. Gardner, along with Randi, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and 16 or so others, was a CSICOP Founding Fellow.

Those two major activities are still only a fraction of Gardner's output over the years. He's done annotated versions of all sorts of classics, including Alice in Wonderland, which is so admired that one of my friends is still, 30 years after it happened, thrilled to be cited as a reader respondent in the second edition. All in all, Gardner has written 60-odd books – not a patch on his late friend Isaac Asimov, but still well ahead of most people.

There probably isn't any American mathematician or scientist over the age of 35 who wasn't influenced by those columns. There probably isn't even an American who's just interested in mathematics or science, who wasn't affected.

Last week, I got to remember why when a padded mailer arrived on my desk bearing a CD published by the Mathematical Association of America containing the full set of Gardner's mathematical games columns. Penrose tiling, binary logic and sorting, fractals, superstring theory.

Gardner wrote about public-key cryptography before anyone else had noticed its importance. He himself has never taken (as far as I know) to electronic mail, but as part of explaining the importance of public-key cryptography he predicted in the 1980s that the upward trend of postal rates wouldn't matter for more than another few decades. (Although the next sentence sounds more like fax than email: "Before long it should be possible to go to any telephone, insert a message into an attachment and dial a number. The telephone at the other end will print out the message at once.")

Gardner published the columns in book form as he went along, incorporating into the book readers' responses, updating these sometimes for subsequent editions. The CD, therefore, isn't the original columns as they appeared in the magazine; they are the columns as they appeared in the books. The section on public key cryptography, he notes in the preface to the book it's in, was completely rewritten because so much had happened between the time the magazine version appeared and its republication. So this collection is for readers, not archivists. At $56, I'm sure it will make a wonderful gift.

The CD isn't perfect. It would have helped to have had more explicit chronology attached to each column (or book chapter) indicating when it was written and when it was last revised; chronology is an important bit of context any time you read anything. Each book is reproduced as a separate PDF, and there's a search function that indexes the entire disc, plus a lengthy interview with Gardner that covers his life from his birth in Oklahoma through to October 2004, when he turned 90.

What does all this have to do with the core topic of net.wars, the border wars between cyberspace and real life? Not much. Except that without Gardner this column probably would never have happened.

I'm not sure whether a career like Gardner's would be possible any more. For the years that he wrote the mathematical games column it was his only job. Imagine being a freelance journalist now and being able to make a living writing just 12 articles a year. I don't know anyone who could, even if they were able to retain enough of the rights to put them out in book form afterwards.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).