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4.0 out of 5 stars Listening to his heart
For a man who did not take a single maths course in college, Martin Gardner did pretty well to make a career out of his love of recreational maths, and to end his long life with "an Erdös number of 2" (ask a mathematician how cool that is). He was, to list a few of his achievements, a prolific author (one photograph shows him standing by a bookshelf full of his own...
Published 3 months ago by Sphex

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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars One for the fans
I was delighted to see Martin Gardner's autobiography, as he was a great science writer. I loved his mathematical columns (mostly encountered through collections like Mathematical Undiluted_Hocus-Pocus__The_Autobiography_of_Martin_Gardner__Amazon.co.uk__Martin_Gardner__Persi_Diaconis__James_Randi__BooksPuzzles and Diversions) and his annotated versions of books by Lewis...
Published 17 months ago by Brian Clegg


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4.0 out of 5 stars Listening to his heart, 4 Dec. 2014
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This review is from: Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner (Hardcover)
For a man who did not take a single maths course in college, Martin Gardner did pretty well to make a career out of his love of recreational maths, and to end his long life with "an Erdös number of 2" (ask a mathematician how cool that is). He was, to list a few of his achievements, a prolific author (one photograph shows him standing by a bookshelf full of his own books), a renowned sceptic and debunker of "medical crap" such as homeopathy and Christian Science, for more than 25 years the writer of the Mathematical Games column for Scientific American ("one of the greatest joys" of his life), a yeoman in the US Navy during World War II, a mysterian over the nature of consciousness, and, perhaps most oddly for his atheist admirers, a (deist) believer in God and the afterlife. In short, a busy man.

This engaging profile is far from the kind of linear account we might crudely imagine a mathematically minded person to write. Indeed, it's not until half way through the book that we learn anything about his parents, when he tells us "that the time has come, in this slovenly autobiography, to speak about my mother and father." That raises a smile. He's being too harsh on himself, of course, but we know what he means: the apologetic phrase "I have forgotten" crops up many times (sometimes on the same page) in connection with some event or person he has just mentioned.

Slovenly implies slapdash, which is what Martin Gardner can rarely have been when devising and resolving mathematical puzzles or when writing one of his many books. Still, this final challenge - packing the experience of a life that spanned over 90 years into 200 pages, with the ultimate deadline fast approaching - is probably not his most tightly written work, although the potshot nature of this autobiography does actually capture something important about all our lives: the random nature of so much of what happens. He credits two major parts of his life to chance: his association with Scientific American was the "second luckiest event" in his life, "the first was meeting Charlotte" (his wife). Having a father who loved science was another.

Gardner's geniality and sociability served him well in his early career as a journalist, and he clearly had a knack of getting on with a wide range of people. Many of the names he mentions will be familiar only to avid readers of his books or columns, although some that he drops are both surprising and well-known the world over: he recalls attending two of Thornton Wilder's classes "on the writing of fiction" and the two occasions Salvador Dalí took him to lunch.

His amiability did not extend to purveyors of alternative medicine such as Christian Science or homeopathy (each year "an untold number of people die as a result of putting their trust" in these). He tells a good joke about "a homeopath who forgot one day to take his pills and died of an overdose" but elsewhere his particular brand of humour does not come across so well, and it's not because we had to be there to appreciate the comedy. He describes as "a masterpiece" his favourite practical joke played by a male friend of his on a "lady friend" who had stayed overnight. The upshot of the joke, which is too tedious to relate, is that "they never heard from her again." Gardner's bald retelling of the episode no doubt leaves much out, but he seems unconcerned that the female friend obviously did not find the joke as funny as they did.

Also intriguing, especially given his lifelong interest in philosophical questions, is his expectation that "neuroscientists will unravel" the mystery of consciousness. What is peculiar about this position is the idea that a purely causal explanation of consciousness at the microphysical level will be at all satisfying as an explanation. It's like expecting to understand the laws of arithmetic by studying the operations of a calculator's transistors. (Gardner rather foolishly and uncharitably dismisses Daniel Dennett, one of the few philosophers who writes clearly about consciousness, and who gives cogent reasons for resisting the mysterian's siren call. See Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.)

The biggest surprise of all to many, however, will be that Gardner was a philosophical theist (a deist). He admits that he has "no good arguments" for his beliefs, that God is "impossible for us to understand" and that perhaps he's "incapable of understanding" God's ways. This smacks of false modesty - he still knows what God wants, even though he doesn't know that God exists!

He justifies his faith in the same expedient way many scientists who happen to be religious do (see, for example, Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist): he agrees with Rudolf Carnap that "religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are like two separate continents, with no land joining them." This is NOMA by another name (see also Religious Experience by Wayne Proudfoot), but no less intellectually bankrupt.

It's unfortunate that his appeal to "the heart, not the head" is wasted on his weak defence of philosophical theism, and that he ends the book by commenting that the dying Keats "was listening to his heart." Intuition may be the first step of the journey taken by anyone who's fallen in love, as well as the key creative act of scientists from Einstein to Hawking. Intuition as the last word on a subject is, however, the hallmark of the crank. Better to remember Martin Gardner as one of those rare and valuable writers who could venture into the worlds of science and mathematics as an intelligent and interested layman, and then entertain the rest of us with his discoveries.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars One for the fans, 2 Nov. 2013
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Brian Clegg "Brian Clegg" (Wiltshire, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner (Hardcover)
I was delighted to see Martin Gardner's autobiography, as he was a great science writer. I loved his mathematical columns (mostly encountered through collections like Mathematical Undiluted_Hocus-Pocus__The_Autobiography_of_Martin_Gardner__Amazon.co.uk__Martin_Gardner__Persi_Diaconis__James_Randi__BooksPuzzles and Diversions) and his annotated versions of books by Lewis Carroll - and he wrote well on the matter of pseudoscience.

I ought to say straight away that the book was a bit of a disappointment. In part this is simply because Gardner had a very ordinary sort of life. I don't say that disparagingly - it's just like most of us. When you read a book about someone like Richard Feynman you have both the opportunity to read about his amazing work, and his remarkable life. Gardner's work is its own tribute, while the life of a science writer is not all that exciting, certainly in this case.

The other problem I had is that a lot of what's in the book doesn't particularly resonate. There are long sections about subtle debates in obscure (and now mostly forgotten) versions of 20th century philosophy, plus the politics of the University of Chicago that is hard to get excited by. And there is also Gardner's sense of humour, which seems to be very much of a different age. Whenever he recounts a `funny' story, it's a bit like looking at an old Punch cartoon - you can't quite understand why it was considered humorous. This comes through strongly when Gardner spends several pages recounting the `hilarious' exploits of a practical joker friend.

At one point we are told there are many examples of this practical joker at work, but Gardner is just picking out two, presumably the best. One of these involves writing to a paperclip manufacturer, complaining that the box of 100 clips only has 98 in it, and when he opened the box, it smelled funny. The punchline is that the manufacturer wrote back to say that numbers in the box varied, so it could be a couple under or over 100, and they didn't know why it smelled funny. My, how we roared with laughter.

Attempts at humour aside, the book comes alive when Gardner talks about mathematical puzzles, magic and testing fraudulent pseudoscience - but it is a relatively small part of the content. Also of real interest is his honest explanation of why he was a deist, though no longer a Christian, and the entertainment he clearly got from winding up atheists who expected him to be one of them with his arguably irrational but very human arguments.

If, like me, you are are a Gardner fan, you will find material to interest you in here - but don't expect it be a rip-roaring page turner of an autobiography. It is a gentle meander through a mostly unremarkable life story that produced some decidedly remarkable writing.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I expected better, 30 Oct. 2013
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F. Odds - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner (Hardcover)
There's an old joke that runs: "Mummy, why does grandma keep reading the bible?" "Hush dear -- she's cramming for her finals." I'm strongly reminded of this by Martin Gardner's autobiography. The author's short preface ends as follows. "The best-known remark of stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce was that people are leaving their churches and going back to God. What follows is a rambling autobiography of one such person -- me."

From start to finish, the autobiography is suffused with references to Gardner's religious beliefs. In a prologue he explains he is a "mysterian" -- an adherent to a philosophy that no-one can understand or explain how consciousness emerges from a material brain. Gardner gives the example of a chess-playing computer never being aware it is playing chess. But surely this is a straw man comparison. From the earliest assemblages of single cells into multi-celled organisms, self consciousness in those organisms must have served as a selective advantage in many situations. Given 4 billion years of evolution it would be amazing if those life forms capable of moving around the planet had not developed self awareness and "free will".

In a postscript to the book, the magician and atheist James Randi, a friend of Gardner for many decades, says that Gardner explained his belief in a god, notwithstanding the total lack of evidence for any deity, because it simply made him feel more comfortable. Sadly, many of those who believe in any pseudoscientific nonsense, which Gardner and Randi both avidly debunk, could easily present the same excuse.

If the book wearies the reader (or certainly this reader) with its tendency to throw up religious issues at the drop of the tiniest hat, it is often also an interesting read when it deals with the things that made Gardner famous. I have respected him for many decades both for his Mathematical Games columns (they ran for 25 years in the Scientific American periodical) and his book Fads And Fallacies In The Name Of Science, which effectively cured me of irrational adolescent beliefs in, for example, the notion that UFOs are alien spacecraft visiting earth, or that psychic phenomena are real. The portions of the biography that deal with the events that led up both to the mathematical games and the interest in pseudoscience debunking were a delight to read.

Gardner's basic biographical details are well enough known. He graduated in philosophy from the University of Chicago, and became a writer on topics that tickled his intellect (which is a very wide range indeed). The two major foci that emerged (recreational mathematics and scepticism) to form the main platforms of his professional career arose almost by chance and circumstance, the way Gardner tells it. His lifelong semi-professional interest in magic is a third plank to his life that provides a nice set of anecdotes for the autobiography.

I wish Martin Gardner had been persuaded to write an autobiography maybe 20 years ago (at one point he mentions the date of writing as 2005), because it might have been cheerier and a tad less obsessed with repetitious explanations of his religious beliefs.
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Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner
Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner by James Randi (Hardcover - 29 Sept. 2013)
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