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The Eighth Gathering for (Martin) Gardner

Special Report

Ray Hyman

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.5, September / October 2008

Who attends these gatherings? What takes place? How do they serve as a tribute to this remarkable man?

The Eighth Gathering for Gardner (G4G8) took place at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, from March 26 through March 30, 2008. A Gathering for Gardner occurs in Atlanta every two years, celebrating the many facets of the polymath Martin Gardner. Martin, who rarely attends public meetings, attended the first two gatherings. Although he has not come to the latter six meetings, the organizers make sure that he receives a full report of all the presentations.

Attendance is by invitation only. To receive an invitation, a person must have some connection with Martin and share one or more of his myriad interests. At the earlier gatherings, most of the attendees were chosen by Martin himself. Since then, the criteria have become more inclusive. People are invited if their activities have been influenced or inspired by Martin and his writings. Most of the attendees have not met Martin personally, but many of them have communicated with him. Among many other amazing qualities, Martin somehow manages to engage in extended correspondence with hundreds of admiring disciples.

I first met Martin in 1950 at a “sodality” at Bruce Elliot’s apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. Bruce Elliot was a magician who held these sodalities every Friday night. Every major New York magician usually attended. I was a young college student in transition from finishing my undergraduate degree and beginning my graduate work at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Because I had recently published some of my creations in a magic magazine, I got the attention of some of the New York magicians. They invited me to attend Bruce Elliot’s sodality whenever I came to New York. I made the trip to New York just to attend.

At my first sodality I was dazzled by the gathering of famous magicians whom I knew by reputation but had never met in person. I met Jay Marshall, Dai Vernon, and other luminaries, including Martin. Because Martin and I shared interests, not only in magic but also in skeptically evaluating paranormal and other pseudoscientific claims, we became good friends. We began a correspondence that still continues. Later, when I worked for General Electric Company at its New York headquarters from 1958 through 1961, Martin and I were neighbors. We lived only a few miles from each other and frequently had dinner together.

Martin’s mastery of magic; philosophy of science; recreational mathematics; optical illusions; the literary subtleties of L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, and Arthur Conan Doyle; debunking pseudoscience; theology; and other topics have always impressed me. However, having attended all of the eight Gatherings for Gardner, I have become even more awed with the variety of subjects to which he contributed and for which many disciples credit him for inspiring. It is beyond my comprehension how one individual, without benefit of computers or assistants, can consistently write books, articles, reviews, and commentaries on so many different topics and at the same time maintain continuing correspondence with so many individuals around the world. And just as amazing is that the quality of the content of his writing and correspondence is consistently of the highest caliber.

So who attends these gatherings? What takes place? How do they serve as a tribute to this remarkable man? At the most recent gathering, registration began on Wednesday evening. Registrants assembled in many small groups. In some of the groups, individuals displayed new puzzles or challenged one another with puzzles. In other groups, magicians demonstrated new tricks. Discussions on a variety of topics were held. And, of course, participants reminisced about some of the previous attendees who have sadly passed away, such as Jerry Andrus and Jay Marshall. Very soon, news spread that Lennart Green, the dazzling magician and puzzle devotee who has been a fixture at all previous gatherings, would not be able to make it to this one. He had broken his hip on his way to the airport in Sweden. Although unable to attend, word reached us later that he was doing well.

Three hundred people registered for G4G8. In addition to participants from the United States, attendees came from England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Israel, Serbia, Italy, Japan, China, Denmark, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Hungary, and Canada. I suspect that several other countries might also have been represented.

The formal conference began at 8:30 Thursday morning, and later that evening we had dinner at the Sun Dial Restaurant, which sits atop the tower of the Westin Peachtree Hotel. The restaurant continually rotates so that each diner obtains a 360-degree panoramic view of Atlanta and its surroundings. We could see many boarded-up windows and other traces of the recent tornado that had swept through downtown Atlanta. Several magicians went from table to table entertaining the attendees. These included Dan Garrett, Thomas Fraps and Pit Hartling from Germany, and several others.

On Friday afternoon, chartered buses took the participants to Tom Rodger’s unique house for a Japanese lunch and dinner. Tom, who is the primary coordinator of the gathering, hired Japanese architects to construct his house in authentic Japanese style. His environs were landscaped with Japanese gardens, ponds, waterfalls, a tea house, and the like. Visitors were treated to Japanese Taiko Drumming, the erection of a group sculpture, a puzzle hunt, and a special performance by a dancer from Japan, as well as street magic.

Compass Points, a fifty-two-inch scupture designed by George W. Hart, is composed of sixty stainless-steel pieces, 120 brackets, and 510 nuts and bolts.

Compass Points, a fifty-two-inch scupture designed by George W. Hart, is composed of sixty stainless-steel pieces, 120 brackets, and 510 nuts and bolts.

The dinner on Saturday at the Ritz-Carlton featured a tribute to the late Jerry Andrus as well as a magic show performed by Dan Garrett (filling in for Lennart Green), Pit Hartling, Thomas Fraps, and Mark Mitton. The mathematician Arthur Benjamin performed his very impressive and entertaining lightning calculator act.

Throughout the gathering, an exhibition room and sales room were available for participants. The exhibition room displayed rare puzzles, puzzles made out of special woods or precious metals, kinetic art, optical illusions, and other interesting items. The sales room provided the opportunity to buy a variety of puzzles, books, and gadgets related to the various themes of the gathering.

The major focus of the gathering was the presentations—ranging in length from ten to thirty minutes (each speaker who finished before his or her allotted time was awarded one dollar). More than ninety presentations were given. At previous gatherings, the range of topics—all related to Martin Gardner’s interests—included the construction of mazes, juggling, joggling (juggling while racing on foot), analysis of ancient puzzles, introduction of new puzzles, knot theory, the history of magic, mathematical magic, critiques of paranormal claims, paradoxes, new mathematical proofs, kinetic art, new and old optical illusions, various themes based on Escher’s art and geometry, specially designed Frisbees, demonstration of a model aircraft kept aloft by the slight breeze created by a person walking, and other delights.

This year’s contributions were no less varied. Several presentations focused on different ways to make mathematics fun for students—an endeavor that is dear to Martin’s heart. At one extreme, we had some rather arcane presentations of new mathematical proofs, such as one that dealt with a new computerized proof. Thomas Banchoff showed an excerpt of Flatland: The Movie. Several presenters provided proofs for various puzzles. We had talks on soap bubbles, the Knight’s Tour, puzzle food, Sudoku, and puzzle locks from India.

Adam Atkinson from the United Kingdom discussed “Applications of Vampires in Law and Medicine.” He used what we know about vampires from shows such as Buffy and Ultraviolet to suggest various ways they could be used to solve legal and medical problems. George Bohigian explained that in ancient times the ability to recognize and identify constellations and celestial bodies was used to test vision. The ability to detect the separation between the two stars that make up the double star in the Big Dipper was a common test. Bohigian showed how this ability correlated with the 20/20 line in the current Snellen visual acuity test. Arthur Benjamin performed and then taught us a wonderful card trick that depends on a subtle mathematical principle. And Michael Ecker regaled us with a survey of fun paradoxes such as “going back in time and killing both of your parents before they met.”

Participants of the Gathering for Gardner pose nect to the sculpture they helped assemble.

Participants of the Gathering for Gardner pose nect to the sculpture they helped assemble.

Peter Lamont, from the University of Edinburgh, discussed “The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick.” His presentation was an interesting addendum to his book The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: the Biography of a Legend (reviewed in SI, November/December 2005). According to historians, the trick was witnessed by Marco Polo, and the Viceroy of India offered in 1875 a large reward for a single performance of the trick. Lamont’s careful research revealed that neither of these statements is true. The Indian Rope Trick, the stimulus for endless debates and speculation, was created as a journalistic hoax by John Wilkie that was published in the Chicago Daily Tribune on August 8, 1890. It was quickly picked up by newspapers around the world.

I was especially intrigued by the physicist David Finkelstein’s “Decoding Dürer.” When Dürer created his famous engraving Melencolia in 1514, he was one of the most gifted artists of his time. He was also, like Leonardo Da Vinci, talented in many other fields, such as technology, philosophy, and the like. Many, including myself, have found Dürer’s engraving fascinating because of its many occult, Biblical, and other symbols. Among other images in the engraving is a 4 x 4 magic square. Many art and other scholars have speculated about the message they think Dürer was trying to convey. Finkelstein argues that the engraving contains a “double message.”

“The overt message . . . is that absolute truth and beauty are inaccessible to the artist/scientist, causing the melancholy of the legend. The covert message, however, is that Natural Philosophy, Gateway I to Heaven, is superior to Mathematical and Theological Philosophy. The innocuous admission of the limitations of science veils a manifesto of the impending scientific revolution that would otherwise have been a capital offense,” said Finkelstein. His analysis is compelling, but I suspect many scholars will not buy it.

As you can surmise from this small sample of the content of the presentations, the topics not only ranged widely but all dealt with challenging puzzles, paradoxes, mysteries, and other themes to which Martin Gardner has contributed to or inspired others to contribute to. Each of the presenters gratefully acknowledged that they were inspired by Martin in pursuing these themes further.

Ray Hyman

Ray Hyman is professor emeritus of psychology, University of Oregon.