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Martin Gardner Has Left Us

Special Tribute

James Randi

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 34.5, September/October 2010

Martin always expressed his delight at something that he had just stumbled upon or that had occurred to his agile mind as he applied it to a problem at hand.

Where to begin? I’ve really no idea where or exactly when I first met Martin Gardner. I believe our first meeting occurred in the offices of Scientific American magazine more than six decades ago, but it seems that I have always known him. He became such a fixture in my life, such a dependable part of my world. I was so very accustomed to picking up the telephone to call him or answering a call from him that always resulted in an improvement of my knowledge of the universe.

Traveling the world, as I have done most of my life, I’ve found that some academics doubt that I actually knew this legendary figure in person. I recall that when I delivered a lecture to the systems engineers of IBM many years ago, a talk during which I referred to Martin, I was besieged by a group from the audience who asked me to settle whether Martin was an actual individual or perhaps an amalgamation of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and maybe a magician colleague of mine, since his writings so frequently touched on the sort of expertise that only such a trio could summon up. They were appropriately amazed and edified when I assured them that this paragon was actually a single person, a real human being who was quite as accomplished as he appeared to be.

Another matter on which I was queried from time to time was whether or not Martin actually had academic degrees in mathematics—which he did not. As he once expressed it to me, after beginning his column in Scientific American (SA), he sort of learned it as he went along. And I must say that I believe that was true. He always expressed his delight at something that he had just stumbled upon or that had occurred to his agile mind as he applied it to a problem at hand. Indeed, “delight” was a major characteristic of this man’s makeup. That enthusiasm certainly carried over into his books and his SA column. He was constantly celebrating discoveries, expanding on them, and looking for new ways to communicate them to the public—and especially to young people. He was never happier than when he was in the company of kids to whom he would present a brain teaser, followed by the “Aha!” phase in which he would provide an answer—usually totally unexpected—that made everything quite clear.

That lucidity of his work made him a great teacher. His weaving of a story might have been inspired by his total admiration for the Alice stories by Lewis Carroll. He pored over every sentence that Carroll had constructed and extracted from them every sort of nuance he could, and of course he recorded his observations in writing—to the delight of his many, many fans over the years and around the globe. Martin’s spectrum of interest was very broad. His coterie of friends included major professional magicians, mathematicians of every sort, philosophers, a few scoundrels, and a sufficient variety of weirdos to round out his perception of the world. As an atheist myself, I admit that I was somewhat surprised that this man was a deist. When I inquired about this apparent lapse of logic, he calmly informed me that he was well aware the atheists had a much better argument than he did and that in fact he had no supporting evidence for his acceptance of a deity. It simply made him “feel more comfortable,” and knowing Martin as I did, I merely accepted that fact and somewhat celebrated it. Anything that improved Martin’s life improved mine.

At our next Amaz!ng Meeting in July, we of the James Randi Educational Foundation will certainly not hold any sort of memorial to Martin Gardner. That would have embarrassed him hugely, I’m quite sure. His son Jim, calling me to announce his father’s demise, added that the will he left behind specified that there be no funeral and that cremation would be preferred. That’s my Martin, and I expected no less. No, at the July conference we will celebrate the existence of this fine gentleman, one of my giants, a huge intellect, a prolific author, and a caring, responsible, citizen of the world. If we can manage it, we’ll have balloons and dancing girls—which would have titillated Mr. Gardner, I guarantee you.

Yes, he’s gone away, but his wise words and his great love for reason and compassion will remain with us forever. I loved him dearly, but I leave him to the ages.

James Randi

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James “The Amazing” Randi is a magician, investigator of psychic claims, author (Flim-Flam!, The Faith Healers, The Mask of Nostradamus, The Magic of Uri Geller), and the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation. He was a founding fellow of CSICOP. This article is based on a special presentation on investigating psychics he gave at the Fifth World Skeptics Congress, Abano Terme, Italy, October 8—10, 2004.