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Special Tribute

James Alcock

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 34.5, September/October 2010

It takes a special kind of person to write insightfully about quantum mechanics and mathematics—and literature and religion and pseudoscience and conjuring and philosophy. And it takes a very special kind of person to be able to do so in a way that is comprehensible, enlightening, entertaining to the intelligent layperson, and worthy of the respect of experts. Such a rare person was Martin Gardner, and his achievements are all the more impressive given that he was largely self-taught and without advanced degrees in physics, mathematics, literature, or philosophy.

I knew Martin Gardner the icon rather well, and I owe him a considerable debt for what I have learned from him over the years. When I was an undergraduate physics student, my classmates and I avidly devoured his “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American, along with his published collections of mathematical puzzles and enigmas and his other books on science and mathematics. He helped make mathematics and physics delightful to pursue. Later on, when I switched disciplines and became a graduate student in psychology, I turned to his writings once again when I was asked—nay, virtually ordered—by the department chair to prepare a critical examination of extrasensory perception (ESP) for presentation to undergraduate students who were clamoring for such a talk. I knew nothing of the subject at the time; so where was I to begin, given the apparent paucity of critical literature on the subject? I dug out Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science and let Martin introduce me to the subject. That simple beginning unexpectedly led me into decades of critical commentary and debate with regard to parapsychology.

Later on, as a young psychology professor, I was researching how people maintain their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. I wanted a demonstration that would confront subjects with ostensible evidence that something they held to be absolutely true was apparently false. Where to begin? I turned to Martin Gardner once again: I began re-reading some of his books and articles and soon came across the perfect vehicle for my research—a puzzle, invented a century earlier by Sam Lloyd but preserved and analyzed by Gardner, in which a piece of paper of a certain area, when cut into pieces and the pieces rearranged, appears quite clearly to have gained in area. This was ideal for my purpose, for psychologists had long believed that all of us acquire in childhood a firm belief in “conservation of area,” so that we “know” that area cannot be changed by the rearrangement of component parts.

I had always been very impressed by Martin Gardner the icon, but I was fortunate enough to be able to meet Martin Gardner the man. This came about when I was made a member of the CSICOP executive council. With this appointment, I was delighted that I would rub shoulders with the man himself, for he was one of the founders of CSICOP and a member of its executive council. I soon learned, however, that he was averse to travel and did not usually attend council meetings. I therefore had to wait to meet him until a meeting was held in Atlanta, which was near enough to his home at the time that he did indeed attend. Martin the man proved to be as impressive as Martin the icon. He was gentle, intelligent, witty, modest, curious, and filled with creative energy and imagination. A longtime fan such as I could not avoid feeling a little star-struck, although it was very clear that stardom was the last thing that he wanted. I remember our first conversation very well: he was a major contributor to the conjuring literature, and when he learned that I was an amateur magician, he immediately and graciously responded by sharing with me a new magical effect that he had just invented. I was struck by his warmth, his lack of pretense, and his excitement about sharing new ideas.

As I reminisce, I see that Martin has had an important influence on me—as he no doubt has had upon countless others who have been devoted to his scholarship—for a very long time. Whether as Martin the icon or Martin the man, he has enriched our lives. We shall all miss him.

James Alcock

James E. Alcock is professor of psychology, Glendon College, York University, Toronto.