Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Two Gardners

There were two Gardners who impressed me when I was young. Both influenced me, but for very different reasons. Both lived long, both had a variety of interests and both had authored dozens of books, though neither could stake claim to much formal education in the subject they are well-known for.

One was Erle Stanley Gardner (July 17, 1889 – March 11, 1970), the American lawyer and author of detective stories. Who has not heard of ‘The Case of the …’ series? For some curious reason, he had several pseudonyms other than the more popular A.A. Fair, some of them being Kyle Corning, Charles M Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J Kenny, Les Tillray and Robert Parr. He created many different unforgettable characters like the ingenious Lester Leith, a ‘gentleman thief’, Ken Corning, a crusading lawyer and Perry Mason, the lawyer and crime-solver who featured in more than eighty novels he wrote.

Gardner’s formal study of law school lasted approximately one month, for he was suspended from school when his interest in boxing became a distraction. Later he became a self-taught attorney and passed the state bar exam in 1911. Innovative and restless in his nature, Gardner was bored by the routine of legal practice, the only part of which he enjoyed was trial work and the development of trial strategy. His other interests were travel, history, and forensic science.

This Gardner made many of my long and tedious train journeys short and interesting; they had more entertainment value that edification. His namesake, Martin Gardner (October 21, 1914 – May 22, 2010), was of the cerebral kind. I first I came across him in the puzzle column of the Scientific American in the United States Information Service Library (USIS), Trivandrum which was closed down, thanks to the communists here and whose immaculate white building on the Main Road was razed down, thanks to the rapacious real estate lobby.

Later, my colleague and friend Dr C V Ram Mohan gifted me a book of puzzles, mostly mathematical ones, authored by Martin Gardner. Apart from teasing brains with math puzzles for a quarter century, Gardner wrote books on topics as diverse as magic and philosophy. He wrote fiction, poetry, literary and film criticism. He was so prolific and wide-ranging in his interests that critics speculated that there just had to be more than one of him! Gardner used to say that his life was not all that interesting, really. ‘It’s lived mainly inside my brain,’ he said.

The owner of a questioning mind, his was a leading voice in refuting pseudoscientific theories, from ESP to flying saucers. Who, but Gardner, could have taken his hero Lewis Carroll to task in ‘Annotated Alice’ (1960) for writing of a ‘golden afternoon’ in the first line of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, for, he had found that the day, July 4, 1862, was, in fact, ‘cool and rather wet’?

His was a clarifying intelligence: he said his talent was asking good questions and transmitting the answers clearly and crisply. His puzzles were often mathematical. What is special about the number 8,549,176,320? As Gardner explained, the number is the ten natural integers arranged in English alphabetical order. Though his mathematical writings intrigued a generation of mathematicians, he had not studied the subject formally beyond school.

His fans included names as celebrated and diverse ass W H Auden (Poet), Douglas Hofstadter (Cognitive scientist), Vladimir Nabokov (Of the Lolita fame), Arthur C Clarke (The Sci-Fi man), Jacob Bronowski (Polymath), Stephen Jay Gould (Evolutionary biologist) and Carl Sagan (Astronomer). Nabokov referred to him in his novel ‘Ada’ as ‘an invented philosopher’. An asteroid is named after Gardner.

‘Martin Gardner is one of the great intellects produced in this country in the 20th century,’ said the Douglas Hofstadter whose seminal work ‘Metamagical Themas’ (Anagram of Mathematical Games) has left me astounded. Incidentally, he was Gardner’s successor at the Scientific American in said Gardner achieved elegant results by drawing on fields from logic to the philosophy of science to literature. He conveyed ‘the magical quality of mathematics,’ Dr. Hofstadter said.

Gardner rejected speculative metaphysics because it could not be proved logically or empirically. He debunked pseudoscience and said he found no reason to believe in anything religious except a human desire to avoid ‘deep-seated despair’; so, he said, he believed in God. Stephen Jay Gould described Gardner as ‘the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surround us’.

Coming as it does from someone who had done the puzzle column in the Scientific American for twentyfive years from 1956, Gardner was self-effacingly transparent when he said, ‘The number of puzzles I’ve invented you can count on your fingers.’ Gardner admitted that to keep just ahead of his monthly deadline, he used to rush out to secondhand bookstores scouring for books about math puzzles, an approach he used for years. Not for nothing that Adam Gopnik wrote of him in The New York Times Book Review in 1999 that Gardner had ‘an old-fashioned, almost 19th century kind of mind – self-educated, opinionated, cranky and utterly unafraid of embarrassment.’

For all his success in refuting those who take advantage of people’s gullibility, he sometimes could not help having fun with it himself. In one Scientific American column, he wrote that dwelling in pyramids could increase everything from intelligence to sexual prowess. Perhaps that was what he meant when he said, ‘I just play all the time and am fortunate enough to get paid for it.’ I’m sure not many of us enjoy that privilege.

1 comment:

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

i used to love the fist gardner.wish i could go back to the days when i was obsessed with them!