Martin Gardner’s Autobiography

December 4, 2013

The man whom Stephen Jay Gould called rationality’s “single brightest beacon” has given us yet another fine book, his posthumously published Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner (Princeton University Press, 2013). It has an introduction by Persi Diaconis and an afterword by James Randi.

Gardner (1914–2010) needs no introduction to rationalists and skeptics. With his seminal book, Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957), he became (as I christened him in a memorial) “the father of modern skepticism” (SI Sept./Oct. 2010). He continued until his death to be a foremost critic of pseudoscience, writing popular science columns for Scientific American and Skeptical Inquirer, and to be an inspiration for successive generations of critical thinkers.

But Martin was much more, as this engaging volume reveals. A modern Renaissance Man, he had many personas: magician, journalist, science writer, philosopher, brainteaser maven, chess player, ardent Sherlockian, collector, biographer, poet, novelist, and literary critic, as well as family man and many others, including player of the musical saw!

Additionally, Martin was a skilled caricaturist. I once turned the tables by producing a humorous rendering of him in a Ripleyesque cartoon “Believe It or What?” wherein I billed him as the “World’s Most Skeptical Man.” (I am honored that it appeared in my friend and mentor’s new book.)

Ironically, he was also, to the shock of skeptics who learned the fact, a deist, or as he precisely defined himself, a philosophical theist. A onetime Christian fundamentalist turned Bible skeptic, Martin readily admitted that “atheists have all the best arguments,” but he chose to adopt “posits of the heart, not the head,” to hope there is a God and possibly an afterlife.

Undiluted Hocus-Pocus is a must-read for everyone—even if not everyone will agree with Martin on everything. Everything, however is illuminated by his tremendous intelligence and his wonderful heart. Many of us miss him on both fronts, but reading his autobiography brings this unique man back once again. That’s a pretty good afterlife, if you ask me.