Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Martin Gardner Interview – Part 5

Martin Gardner

This 5th and final installment in Don Albers’ long interview with Martin Gardner clarifies his philosophical theism, tackles pseudoscience, and glimpses what he’s up to now. Remember, he’s still at it. Gardner just released revised editions of his Scientific American columns here at Cambridge, and has other projects in the works too.

Start from the beginning of the interview here >>

My Favorite Book

DA: Which of your books is in some sense a favorite?

Gardner: I think my Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener is my favorite because it is a detailed account of everything I believe.

DA: When you tell people what you believe, unless it’s Pablum-like, there’s likely to be some strong reaction.

Gardner:Well, the book is controversial because almost everybody who believes in a personal god is into an established religion. The idea of believing in God and not being affiliated with any particular religion is a strange kind of a position to take.

DA: Did the reviews really focus on that?

Gardner: It didn’t get many reviews. It got some good reviews mainly by Christians. The best review was by an Anglican priest, who reviewed it for an Anglican journal. It was a ten-page review. That was the best review it ever got. Actually, a lot of liberal Protestants and very liberal Catholics are really philosophical theists, but they won’t use the term. A lot of prominent Protestant preachers who are liberal Protestants don’t buy any of the traditional doctrines. Take Harry Emerson Fosdick and Norman Vincent Peale, for example. You don’t know what they believed about any Christian doctrine. I don’t think Norman Vincent Peale bought the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection, but he had a big following among conservative Protestants.

DA: You’ve talked about the surprise you threw at some readers in your The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, when you said you are a philosophical theist. For those who don’t know what the term means, you began to explain that this is a belief in a god, and you said in your case that prayer was a part of it, and that you believe in a hereafter.

Gardner: That’s true, I do.

DA: What does your hereafter look like?

Gardner: You can’t say anything about it at all. It’s like talking about attributes of God. It’s in a transcendental realm, and you just believe by hope and a leap of faith that there’s that possibility, but you can’t say anything about it in any detail because obviously nobody knows anything about it. I don’t buy the mediums who communicate with the dead. There’s no empirical evidence for it, and no logical proof, but the possibility is open. If there is a personal god, an after existence follows automatically if you think that God is just, because obviously nature doesn’t care anything about human life. A thousand people can be snuffed out of existence by an earthquake. So to me, the belief in a personal god and belief in some kind of immortality is part of the same leap of faith. It’s hard to have one without the other. But I certainly don’t know that there is an afterlife, in the sense of having any kind of knowledge. It’s a peculiar thing in my brain. It may even have a genetic basis. Philosophical theism is entirely emotional. As Kant said, he destroyed pure reason to make room for faith.

DA: How long have you been a philosophical theist? Did it develop over a long period of time?

Gardner: Absolutely yes—it is a remnant I saved out of my Protestant past.

DA: I don’t know if it’s any comfort, but you’re certainly back in Protestant country again, here in North Carolina.

Gardner: Oh yes, there are lots of Seventh Day Adventists around here. I was quite interested in the Adventist movement when I was in high school. George McCready Price, a prominent Adventist, convinced me that evolution was a false theory when I was in high school. I have a collection of his books. He wrote about 15 or 20 books.

DA: Of the sixty books you’ve done, some have sold very well—The Annotated Alice certainly has done well.

Gardner: Yes, it has sold more than a million copies if you include paperbacks and translations. It has never been out of print.

DA: How do you explain your fascination with Alice in Wonderland?

Gardner: I share with Carroll the following loves: mathematics, puzzles, formal logic, and conjuring. Carroll delighted in showing simple magic tricks to his child friends, and to take them to performances by magicians. More than any other books for children, his two Alice books swarm with logical, mathematical, and linguistic jokes. I did not discover the richness of this kind of humor in the Alice books until I was in my twenties, but since then I have felt a close kinship with Carroll.

DA: How about Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science?

Gardner: This was an early book. It was remaindered by Putnam’s, but Dover reprinted it and it has been one of their best sellers—still in print.

Pseudoscience—Worse Than Ever

DA: You continue to be involved with debunking pseudoscience and the paranormal with your work for The Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Two decades ago you expressed concern about the spread of pseudoscience and ideas about the paranormal. At the time you didn’t think that things were getting better. This is 21 years later. Is it better?

Gardner: I don’t think so, I think it gets worse and worse. The real damage comes to people who rely on alternative medicine, and don’t go to a regular doctor. For example, instead they take a homeopathic dose, which doesn’t do them any harm, but if they rely on it instead of going to a doctor, you get real tragedies. But alternative medicine keeps growing stronger and stronger, with more and more people involved. Homeopathic drugs are now in mainline drug stores, here in town (Hendersonville). Of course, you’re buying nothing but distilled water, because they dilute it to the point where there aren’t any molecules left. The

Martin Gardner with Alice in Central Park

Martin Gardner with Alice in Central Park

homeopathic dose is supposed to be the strongest when there’s the least amount of the drug in the water. They keep diluting it so many times that the probability is very high there is not even a molecule left. So they have to claim that there’s some sort of mysterious way in which the water remembers the properties of the drug. On college campuses, that’s a big problem among students who go to homeopathic physicians. Of course the drugs can’t do any harm, unless of course they’re relying on them, and don’t go to a regular physician for something really dangerous.

DA: They probably won’t do any good either.

Gardner: Well, at least the drugs have a placebo effect. Now there’s a big revival of magnetic therapy. I never expected this to happen. The use of magnets to cure all kinds of diseases was very popular in the nineteenth century. Magazines were filled with ads about magnetic devices, which you would wear under your clothes, in your shoes, and so on. Parade Magazine has run big ads for magnetic soles that you put in your shoes. They have little magnets in them, and are supposed to do all kinds of things to keep you healthy. Magnetic bracelets are popular, too.

DA: What other disturbing things of that sort are growing in importance?

Gardner: Well, there are psychics all over television, making lots of money. There are mediums now who will talk to your departed ones. They are appearing on numerous popular talk shows. Larry King had one on his show just a few weeks ago, a medium you can phone, and he will bring to you messages from your dead relatives.

DA: Larry King? I thought he was a bit better than that.

Gardner: Well, I’m sure he didn’t buy any of it. But it’s great theater.

DA: So your level of optimism is not very high.

Gardner: And, of course, UFOology is going as strong as ever. There are believers who have top posts at major universities, who are into UFOology, and write crazy books about it. It’s hard to believe, but Margaret Mead believed in UFO’s and wrote about how they were piloted by friendly extraterrestrials!

DA: What bright spots do you see out there?

Gardner: Oh, I don’t know. The Skeptical Inquirer magazine may be doing a little bit of good in reaching media people and alerting them to the other side of the story. But I think it’s a losing battle. It preaches to the choir.

Improving Mathematics Education

DA: Let’s suppose we had a ministry of education, like many countries do, and you were placed in charge of education. What would be some of your top priorities?

Gardner: Oh gosh, I don’t know. I believe in free speech, and I don’t believe in muzzling a pseudoscientist. In the medical field, I would try to give more funding to the FDA, for they’re almost powerless to stop all kinds of harmful drugs. Our local paper recently had a full-page ad for a weight reducing drug that actually kills people. It’s based on a plant that grows in the Orient, and operates by expanding in the stomach when it hits water. The stomach, as it expands, gives you the feeling of fullness. So you don’t eat as much, and that’s how you lose weight. But the trouble is, it can expand in the esophagus, and people can choke to death. There’ve been a number of cases of people choking to death, taking this drug. By the time the FDA closes down one of these firms, they simply move to another town, and change the name of the drug. Whenever ads for such drugs appear in the local paper, I write a letter about it, saying the paper should not run such ads. The paper always runs my letters, but it has no effect on the advertising department.

DA: Money still talks.

Gardner: Yes.

DA: As education minister you’d have your say about math teaching in elementary schools and high schools. There certainly are some basic problems about adequate compensation of teachers.

Gardner: I think that’s the key—to increase the pay of the teachers, to get some teachers that really know and love math. That’s the big problem.

DA: When you were a kid you had a great teacher, Pauline Baker Perry. You dedicated one of your books to her, too.

Gardner: She was single when I was in high school, but then later she married the basketball coach. She was quite young and attractive then.

DA: But she was able to survive then, on a low salary.

Gardner: Right, and after she married I think she continued teaching until she died or retired. I don’t think much of the new-new math—the fuzzy math, as they call it.

DA: Have you looked at the new NCTM Standards?

Gardner: I haven’t seen the latest. But I did a long article in The New York Review of Books, attacking a particular book. [The New New Math, New York Review of Books, Volume 45, Number 14, 1998.]

DA: A high school book?

Gardner: Yes.

DA: What about the materials that you have seen for school mathematics these days?

Gardner: The main idea of fuzzy math is to arrange students in small groups that cooperatively discover the theorems. You’ll have a group of maybe seven students and instead of teaching them the Pythagorean theorem you’ll have them cut out triangles and so on, and try to discover it themselves. And, of course, it gets the teacher off the hook. She doesn’t have to do much teaching, she just lets the students fool around, and try to discover theorems. What happens is there is usually one bright student in the group who does all
the work and the others go along. It may take them a week to discover the Pythagorean theorem. I think this is a big waste of time. Most studies show that the students in fuzzy math classes don’t do very well in tests later.

DA: Part of the theory is that when you get into the real world, whatever that is, you’ll be part of a group, a team, so you really need to learn how to work together, and problem solve collectively.

Gardner: Yes, I know, that’s the theory.

DA: But I think you’re right about the difficulties in kids really cooperatively putting this stuff together. I guess another aspect of this is that we’re supposed to appreciate how this is going to really increase their motivation to learn the material.

Dinner with Gödel

DA: Let’s move back to math for just a minute. You’ve lived long enough now to see a lot of really interesting mathematical ideas hit the scene, and there are also some really beautiful ideas that were here long before you were on the scene. First, during your own lifetime, what ideas, what discoveries just kind of knocked your socks off?

Gardner: Well, I think the most interesting developments are mainly in mathematical physics, and that’s the development of superstring theory. That came as a complete surprise to me. It’s a beautiful theory of particles, and it may or may not be true, but it’s thehottest thing in town now in particle physics. It opens up the possibility that higher dimensions are not just artifacts but actually real. There was an article in the New York Times recently, on speculation that there are higher dimensions that are not even rolled up or coacted, but there’s a lot of theoretical work going on now by superstring experts who view our entire universe as embedded in an infinite fifth dimensional space. In the past, speculation about higher dimensions has been crankish, by mystics, who were speculating ‘oh, that’s the transcendental realm in which God exists,’ and so on. Now it’s becoming a very real possibility in modern physics.

DA: Ed Witten, the high priest of string theory, was honored by the mathematical community in 1990 when he won a Fields medal. Mathematicians tend to be pretty careful in passing out Fields medals. He could end up with a Nobel Prize, too, which would be a rarity. But just the fact that he is a physicist winning mathematics’ top prize is very impressive.

Gardner: He’s made a lot of interesting new developments in knot theory. I don’t understand it at all, but apparently knot theory now ties in with quantum mechanics in some mysterious way that I don’t understand. A few years ago I went to a conference honoring Andrew Wiles. I went partly to hear Witten talk, and also to hear Penrose talk. I understood everything Penrose said and I understood nothing that Witten said. Absolutely nothing, not a single sentence. He kept talking about “loop groups,” and I had never heard of
loop groups before.

DA: So the most exciting developments for you have been in mathematical physics.

Gardner: Right.

DA: You’ve read a lot of contemporary material, and you’ve read a lot by those who have been gone a long time. Are there any of those departed people that you’d like to sit down with over dinner, or visit with in your library and chat with them?

Gardner: I’d love to chat with Gödel for example. He had some strange cosmological views, and I’d like to talk to him about that, about time travel into the past. I never could quite understand that. And of course he was a dedicated Platonist. He thought all of mathematics was out there, including the transfinite numbers. I’d enjoy talking to him about that. Of course I’d love to talk with Einstein and Neils Bohr. Among puzzle makers, I’d most want to talk with Henry Dudeney and Sam Loyd.

DA: They really rang your bell.

Gardner: I also would enjoy talking to Bertrand Russell. He’s one of my heroes. I guess you could call him a mathematician.

DA: Absolutely. Look at his work on Principia Mathematica with Whitehead, and his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. He was a big influence on me when I was young.

Gardner: He was a realist in mathematics. He believed that mathematical objects and theorems have a peculiar kind of existence, not the same as that of stars and stones, but a reality independent of human minds and cultures. A prime number of, say, a trillion digits, is prime even if no one knows it is prime. Andromeda was a spiral nebula long before any humans observed it. I remember a statement he made once that “2 plus 2 is 4 even in the interior of the sun.”

“I’m strictly a journalist.”

DA: Here’s an equally easy question for you. Once you’ve departed this life, let’s suppose you had an opportunity to come back in a hundred years. What questions would you most want to know the answers to that might have been developed during that time?

Gardner: I guess I’d be interested to know if various famous unsolved problems had been solved, such as the Goldbach Conjecture. But I don’t have any great desire to come back and learn what modern mathematics is up to. You’re giving me credit for being more of a mathematician that I really am. I’m strictly a journalist. I just write about what other people are doing in the field.

DA: Well, I know you’ve said that many a time, but you actually have some mathematical papers to your credit, too.

Gardner: Yes, but they’re low-level math. I do have an Erdös number of two, in a couple of ways, through Ron Graham and Frank Harary.

DA: Those are good links. When I posed the question, it didn’t necessarily have to pertain to mathematics. For example, we might wonder if we are going to make it as a civilization?

Gardner: That’s true. I would like to know if we colonize Mars, and if we found any evidence of life on Mars. Of course the most stupendous development would be, hearing from some extraterrestrial civilization. That would really upset everything. I have no opinion on that one way or the other, as to whether there is any intelligent life out there.

DA: Johnny Wheeler says, as you know, that the universe is a home for man.

Gardner: That’s right, Wheeler is one of those people who thinks that we are the only intelligent life in the universe. He bases this on the extreme improbability of life getting started. And he may be right.

DA: There’s a new book that picks up on that notion, it’s called Rare Earth. Peter Taylor and Donald Brownlee at The University of Washington—well respected scientists, who are really looking at the physical and chemical ideas that are so important to life as we know it. They rate the probability as low, but, of course, the qualifier is ‘life as we know it.’

Gardner: That’s right. Life could take all kinds of strange forms. Finding it on other planets would be the most exciting development that I can think of in the next 50 years. But I have no emotional feeling one way or the other. I’m content either way.

DA: I also want to ask you about your Annotated Casey at the Bat. You’ve annotated several famous poems, such as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Carroll’s Hunting of the Shark, and Carroll’s Phantasmagorie.

Gardner: I had a lot of fun doing Casey, I dug up a lot of sequels to the poem, and I tried to weld them all together into a coherent story as if Casey really existed.

DA: How do you account for the popularity of some of these poems that are not in some case gems, but they catch on.

Gardner: Well, I’ve done two anthologies of popular verse for Dover. One was called Famous Poems of Bygone Days. I certainly don’t think they’re up there with Keats or Shakespeare, because I tend to be a classicist in the kind of poetry I most admire, but I do think that a lot of popular verse is more worth reading than some of the poets who have vast reputations. I’m very down on free verse. If a poem doesn’t have some kind of melody, it doesn’t have to be rhyme or meter, but if it doesn’t have any music involved, well it’s just prose broken into lines. So I have a very low opinion of William Carlos Williams and half a dozen other modern poets who I don’t think write poetry at all.

A lot of people think that I have a very high regard for popular verse, above that of the great poets. That’s not true, of course. But I would rather reread something by Byron or Keats than to read anything by Carlos Williams, I’ve never found one poem by him that I wanted to memorize. Anyway, I’ve done the two books for Dover, and in the introductions I sound off about my biases. I did another book of annotated popular verse, called the Annotated Night Before Christmas, now out of print. It’s a collection of parodies and sequels that have been written about The Night Before Christmas. That poem and Casey, and maybe the Old Oaken Bucket, have been the most parodied American poems.

I’ve written a number of parodies myself. I have a parody in my Casey book titled, Casey’s Son, it’s attributed to Nitram Rendrag, my name spelled backwards. And I’ve got some other parodies that get published now and then. I have one in the current issue of Free Inquiry. It’s a parody of The Village Blacksmith, about Ventura, the village wrestler. In 2001, Prometheus Books published Poetic Parodies a collection of parodies of famous poems. In this book, I have the original poem first, followed by one or more parodies of the poem. Almost all of them are in public domain; they’re old parodies, of such favorites as Poe’s Raven, the Old Oaken Bucket. Some are pretty funny. My parodies are credited to Armand T. Ringer, an anagram of my name.

DA: I look forward to reading it.

About The Author

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner is the author of multiple books including The New Martin Gardner Mathematical Library series (2008, 2009), aha! Gotcha & aha! Insight, and more. For 25 of his 90 yea...

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