Martin Gardner’s name is well known to mathematicians and scientists, as well as readers who enjoy puzzles and games. From 1956 to 1981 he wrote the “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American. He has written more than 70 books, including short stories, novels, critiques of pseudoscience, and books explaining esoteric science for the layman. Approaching his 93rd birthday, he is still busy writing.
Donald Simanek: You have had a long career in writing, and have won much acclaim for your work. How did you get started in writing?
Martin Gardner: My first job was as a reporter for the Tulsa Tribune, shortly after I got out of college. That was good training because you had to meet deadlines. I had the great title of “assistant oil editor” of the Tulsa Tribune. I was there for a year or so, then I went back to the University of Chicago and eventually got a job in the press relations office, writing science releases sent to local newspapers.
The first time I got any money for writing was after I got mustered out of the Navy and I went back to the University of Chicago. I sold a short story to Esquire magazine. It was a humorous story titled “The Horse on the Escalator,” about a man who collected jokes about horses. He thought the jokes were hilarious. His wife didn’t think any of them were funny, but she pretended she thought they were funny and laughed every time he told a horse joke. The title came from a joke that was going around at the time about a man who entered the Marshall Field’s department store with a horse. At that time elevators all had elevator operators. The operator said, “You can’t take the horse on the elevator.” The man replied, “But lady, he gets sick on the escalator.”
This is in a collection of my short stories, most of which are from Esquire, called “The No-Sided Professor.” The title story was one of the earliest science fiction stories based on topology. Then for about a year I lived on sales of fiction to Esquire magazine — about 12 stories. When Esquire got a new editor and moved from Chicago to New York City, I lost my market. The new editor didn’t think my stories were funny.
DS: Were you interested in science at an early age?
MG: Yes. Partly because my father was a professional geologist, with a Ph.D. in geology, who wrote many technical papers, mostly about limestone caverns. From my father I got a big dose of geology.
He was also interested in astronomy. I learned from him the order of the planets from the sun.
When I was in grade school I even constructed a model of the solar system, with pictures of the planets pasted on cardboard, with a crude drawing of their orbits. So, my first interest in science was mainly through my dad’s influence.
DS: Magazines such as Science and Invention were popular in the 1920s. Were you a fan of these?
MG: I was a big fan. Science and Invention was the delight of my youth, partly because of the type of articles they ran and partly because they had a science fiction story in every issue. They had a series called “Doctor Hackensaw’s Secrets.”
Each one was a science fiction story, and editor Hugo Gernsback published 40 of them. When he started Amazing Stories magazine I was a charter subscriber. I’ve often regretted that I didn’t save the first 12 issues. I gave them all to my high school physics teacher. He was interested in reading them, and also made them available to his class. He had a big influence on me. I made very poor high school grades in history and English lit, but I got good grades in physics and math. My father bought me a copy of Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of 5,000 Puzzles, Tricks, and Conundrums, and I was hooked on recreational math.
DS: You have written a huge book, The Encyclo-pedia of Close-Up Magic, and also articles for magician’s magazines. When did you first become interested in magic?
MG: Again I have to go back to my father. He was not a magician at all, but he taught me a few magic tricks when I was very young, that he did very skillfully. One involved a table knife on which he put little bits of paper on the two sides. One at a time, you pretend to remove the bits of paper until the knife is empty on both sides, then you wave it and the bits of paper come back again.
It uses what magicians call the “paddle move.” It was the first magic trick I ever learned.
There was a trick where you put a match on a handkerchief and break the match, then open the handkerchief and the match is unbroken. That fooled me completely when he did it. There was another match hidden in the hem of the handkerchief. That’s the one you really broke.
DS: Were you ever a performing magician?
MG: No. The only time I was a performer was when I was in college. I worked Christmas seasons from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve at Marshall Field’s in the toy department, demonstrating Mysto Magic sets. They sold a series of sets with different degrees of complexity, and there was one in particular that had very nice equipment in it.
I worked out a routine and did magic behind the counter until a crowd collected. I went through a series of tricks using equipment in the magic set. I did that for about three Christmas seasons. That’s the only time I ever got paid for doing magic.
DS: During your time in Chicago, did you meet any of the legendary Chicago magicians?
MG: Oh, I did. Magic was my principal hobby and I used to spend a lot of time socializing with the magic crowd. In the evenings, six to 12 magicians gathered at a Chinese restaurant called the Nankin, or another restaurant on Saturdays. Most of them worked in nightclubs. I used to take the elevated into town and join the crowd at the Nankin restaurant. Also a number of magicians who were playing a Chicago date would appear at the restaurant as guests. So I got to meet all the local magicians and a lot of out-of-town magicians also.
DS: You wrote the “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American for 25 years, and that material found its way into 15 books. How did that job come about? Did you realize what you were getting into?
MG: No, I had no idea. I was living in New York at the time. After Esquire moved to New York, I realized that New York was the place for a freelance writer, so I pulled up stakes and moved to New York. I had great difficulty earning a living.
Then Humpty Dumpty’s Magazine came along. A fellow named Harold Schwartz was in charge of their children’s books. He happened to be a personal friend, and he hired me to do activity features for Humpty Dumpty’s, which was just getting started. For eight years I was a contributing editor. In every issue I did a short story about Humpty Dumpty giving moral advice to Humpty Dumpty Junior. They were eggs of course. The magazine came out ten times a year. So I did 80 stories, which never found a book publisher.
I also did the activity features, where you do something that damages the page. You cut it, you tear it out, you fold it, you hold it up to the light. You make a slot and slide a strip up and down through it. These were unsigned. That was great fun. I stopped doing Humpty Dumpty’s only when I started the Scientific American column.
DS: You introduced John Horton Conway’s Game of Life to the world in your Scientific American column. This was a computer simulation game that showed the consequences of very simple rules governing the behavior of counters on a very large or even infinite grid.
MG: That was one of my most successful columns.
DS: That computer simulation shows that from just a few simple rules, complex, persistent structures with lawful and orderly behavior can and often do arise. It demonstrates that order and lawfulness can arise without purposeful design.
MG: That’s one of the great lessons you get from the Game of Life.
DS: What advice can you give to aspiring writers? You once quoted Bertrand Russell’s advice.
MG: He said that whenever he thinks of a simpler word that can be substituted for a complicated word, he always adopts the simpler word. I try to follow that advice.
DS: In 1998 you revised and modernized that classic and somewhat subversive book Calculus Made Easy by Silvanus P. Thompson. There’s much hand-wringing amongst mathematics teachers about whether and how to reform the teaching of calculus, since many students take the course but don’t really learn it well enough to use it effectively. Can you give them any advice on this matter?
MG: My only advice is to read Silvanus Thompson.
I still think that’s the best book to give a high school student to introduce him to calculus. It’s written with a good deal of humor, and approaches the subject in a very simplified way. I think a student can learn calculus better that way than from a big, huge textbook.
DS: Probably your second-most acclaimed book is Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, which has been in print ever since 1952. It has earned you the title of “debunker” of pseudo-science. One of your books even has “debunking” in its title. Some skeptics don’t like that term. They think it suggests a biased attitude and a mind that is not sufficiently open. Are you comfortable with it?
MG: Yes, I don’t mind the term. I not only think it’s a good term to use, but I think all professional scientists should do a certain amount of debunking in their field. A lot of them are so busy that they don’t want to bother. One of the few exceptions was Carl Sagan, who wrote a couple of books you can call debunking books.
DS: You are associated with groups that have “skeptic” in their name. Can you clarify what “skeptic” means to you, and what you would define as “healthy skepticism”?
MG: As far as scientific matters are concerned, the main reason for being a skeptic is that you should not believe anything unless there’s sufficient evidence.
DS: Richard Feynman said that scientific method consists of procedures we have learned to help us avoid drawing wrong conclusions.
MG: That’s a good definition.
DS: You’ve written essays about perpetual motion. The idea of making a machine that puts out more energy than it takes in has been persistent since the 11th century, and shows no sign of abating.
Today some folks are pinning their hopes on tapping the “zero point energy” and “dark energy” that speculative theoretical physics are talking about. They say that the laws of physics, particularly the laws of thermodynamics, stifle creativity, and delay the time when we will produce unlimited energy for next to nothing. How would you respond to them?
MG: Well, the question of whether you can tap zero point energy is a very technical question in quantum mechanics. I’m not enough of an expert to know exactly the reasons for not believing it.
So I have to base my opinion on that of the experts. Most experts in quantum mechanics believe that it’s impossible to get any usable energy that way.
The leading exponent of zero point energy is Harold Puthoff, who is one of the two scientists who verified the psychic powers of Uri Geller.
I have little respect for Puthoff. He’s comparable to a person searching for a perpetual motion machine made of whirling wheels.
DS: Did you get a lot of correspondence from the targets of your book?
MG: I got quite a bit of correspondence.
DS: You once told me of a clever strategy you used with two folks who asked you for your opinion on their perpetual motion machine ideas.
MG: I mainly used that on angle trisectors. If I got a letter from an angle trisector I would reply, “I’m not competent to judge your construction, but you should write to so-and-so, he’s an expert on it.” I’d give him the name and address of another angle trisector.
DS: I’ll bet you never heard from either of them again.
MG: That’s true.
DS: You have also been critical about some mainstream science, such as string theory. How does a nonscientist make judgments when reading about such things? How can one draw the line between science and pseudoscience? Are there any useful clues or characteristics that one can identify?
MG: It’s technically called the “demarcation problem” — the problem of distinguishing good science from bad science. There obviously isn’t any sharp line. It’s very difficult to decide sometimes whether a scientist is just a maverick scientist who may hit on something new or whether he’s a crank. String theory is a case in point.
I really have no business criticizing string theory because I don’t understand it too well.
DS: Our mutual friend Bob Schadewald said that pseudosciences were entertaining, and mostly harmless, except for one. The one he thought “dangerous” was creationism. Are any others dangerous?
MG: An area of pseudoscience that’s really harmful is pseudo medical science. A person can get hooked on something like, say, homeopathy. Clearly there’s absolutely no scientific basis for a homeopathic drug being of any value at all because it’s diluted to the point where there isn’t any of the drug left. A basic dictum of homeo-pathy is that the more dilute the drug, the more potent it is. They dilute the drug until there are only a few molecules of it left, or not even that.
A homeopathic drug has absolutely no thera-peutic effect, but if a person believes the drug is effective it can have a strong psychological effect. A person who is hooked on homeopathy can start relying on the drugs and not go to a reputable doctor, when he might have a serious illness. People could die.
DS: A while back, Jacques Benveniste [1935–2004] rationalized homeopathy by claiming that water had a memory of anything that was once dissolved in it. If that were true, then any tap water we drink would have memory of everything that was ever in it, poisons, medicines, and everything else taken out at the treatment plant. A glass of tap water would be as beneficial as a homeopathic medicine.
MG: When James Randi gives a lecture, he produces a bottle of a homeopathic remedy made from a chemical which, when taken in quantity, is poisonous. He drinks the entire bottle in front of the audience.
DS: Those 1920s Science and Invention magazines often speculated on the future of science and technology. Very often they got it wrong, failing to anticipate important innovations. You are now 92 years of age, and have seen many new things emerge from science. What scientific breakthroughs were most unexpected?
MG: Television was certainly one of them.
I remember as a boy when the first television began to be available I was really awed by it. And of course, the computer revolution was another.
DS: Do you care to speculate about the next big breakthroughs in science?
MG: I suppose the biggest breakthrough in computer science would be quantum computers. They’d be so much faster they would open up all kinds of possibilities.
DS: Will artificial intelligence ever duplicate or surpass the human mind?
MG: I’m convinced it will not. I belong to a school of thought called the Mysterians. It’s a name applied to about a half-dozen philosophers. We are convinced that the human mind, consciousness, and free will are so profound and difficult to explain that no one has the slightest idea how the brain does it.
DS: I think it was Von Neumann who said that if we ever make computers that can think, with the power of the human brain or better, we won’t know how they do it either.
MG: Well, that’s true. It may be possible that computers will imitate human intelligence in some far distant future. I don’t think those computers will be made of wires and switches.
DS: What if we allow them to learn by themselves and make mistakes? Don’t humans learn by making mistakes?
MG: We do. But some kind of threshold is crossed when a computer becomes aware of its own existence. The name “consciousness” applies to that. That is a major threshold that I don’t think any computer that we know how to build will cross. I can imagine in a far future if a computer were made of organic material it might be able to imitate a human brain, but as long as it’s made of electrical currents and switches
I don’t think it will cross the threshold.