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Martin Gardner’s Presence

Special Tribute

Joe Nickell

Volume 34.5, September/October 2010

Despite his personal shyness, Martin's writings were those of a polar opposite: a bold, courageous critic, a prolific correspondent, and a towering thinker.

Martin Gardner gone? Skeptics, say it isn’t so!

From my earliest days as a magician, skeptic, and investigative writer, Martin was there—a presence as reassuring as that of a beloved relative whom one could always count on when needed but who showed up in person only at the occasional family reunion. Extraordinarily shy, Martin avoided public appearances and didn’t lecture, grant media interviews, or even accept awards when they were conditional on his appearing.

Still, he was there. When I was transforming myself into “Mendell the Mentalist” as a young magician, Martin helpfully pecked out on his typewriter a suggestion: a mind-reading effect based on a principle usually embodied in a close-up trick that he very cleverly adapted to the stage.

Once, while I was working as a researcher on a certain project, Martin invited me to visit his home in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and use his extensive personal library. (This I declined, of course, for it would have been too great an imposition on too generous a friend.)

When I reviewed an event held in honor of the shy genius (who had made an exceedingly rare appearance) for the Skeptical Inquirer, Martin thoughtfully wrote a personal note of appreciation.

And he thought of this same writer in 2002 when he ended his long-running column for SI (since 1983), “Notes of a Fringe Watcher.” Asked who he thought might succeed him as leading columnist for the magazine, he wrote, “Joe Nickell?”

I did not meet Martin in person until 1989 when he uncharacteristically appeared at a CSICOP Executive Council meeting in Tampa, Florida. He did not usually wear ties, but someone got him one for a formal group photo, and I was able to give it a straightening just in time. At the 1996 Gathering for Gardner in Atlanta, Georgia, I brought a tape recorder on behalf of Prometheus Books and recorded Martin in his hotel room reading the introduction to the audiotape version of Science: Good, Bad and Bogus. Time spent with him was precious.

But it was as a writer that his presence was most clearly felt. Despite his personal shyness, his writings were those of a polar opposite: a bold, courageous critic, a prolific correspondent, and a towering thinker and polymath. (Never mind that he once said in an interview in these pages [March/April 1998], “I just play all the time, and am fortunate enough to get paid for it.”)

In 1952 he published the first edition of his seminal book, now known to skeptics worldwide as Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. The book proved to be the seed that blossomed into the modern skeptical movement. Gardner mentored a small group of skeptical activists—including magician James Randi, psychologist Ray Hyman, and several others—a group that in 1976 philosopher Paul Kurtz expanded and turned into an international organization known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (presently the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry).

Now Martin Gardner belongs to history, to the pantheon of great intellects of the twentieth century—many of whom were his admirers. A one-man think tank and the father of modern skepticism, he was a presence indeed. But he remains a presence, still alive in our minds, often smiling amid the juggled words, still teaching us to think—and to not forget to have fun.

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.