In the summer of 2006, for a PW author profile, I interviewed polymath Martin Gardner, who’s probably best known for The Annotated Alice, at his home in Norman, Okla. As a boy, I was a fan of Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” column that ran in Scientific American between 1956 and 1981, and over the years I acquired the collections of these columns, as well as Gardner’s dozens of books on such subjects as magic, religion, philosophy, science, and pseudoscience. To spend most of an afternoon and an evening with him talking about these and other topics was a thrill of a lifetime. Gardner, who was then 91, was still working on book projects, still actively corresponding with his many admirers around the world, if via typed letters. (He tried using a computer once, but he gave it up after he decided he was wasting too much time on online chess.) He died in 2010 at age 95.
Last month, while browsing in a Barnes & Noble, I was delighted to discover a new Gardner book—Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, his autobiography, which Princeton University Press published in September. Rambling and anecdotal, this isn’t the place to start for newcomers, but for someone like me it’s valuable for information about his family and early life not available elsewhere. (An important source of Gardner’s philosophical and religious views is his autobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm, which prompted a letter of praise from John Updike.) A section of photos of Gardner at various stages of his career is a plus. But when did he write Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, and why was it being published now?
On Oct. 19, at the Museum of Mathematics on Manhattan’s Madison Square, I got some answers. As part of a series of events in celebration of what would have been Gardner’s 99th birthday on Oct. 21, MoMath was hosting a panel discussion that evening on Gardner’s life and work. One of the panelists was Gardner’s son James, an education professor at the University of Oklahoma, whom I had met during my visit to Norman seven years ago. When I asked James about Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, he explained that his father, ever looking to keep busy, wrote it late in life, a couple years of so after my interview. The three years that passed after his father’s death before publication was simply a function of dealing first with a host of more pressing matters related to the estate.
Oct. 19, as it happens, is my birthday, and as a fellow Libra and skeptic, I feel a particular kinship with Martin Gardner, who liked to claim that it’s been astrologically proven that Libras are skeptical of astrology. Did I mention that he was fond of paradoxes and was a great wit?