Remembering Martin Gardner

June 2, 2010

Martin Gardner — a one-man think tank and the father of modern skepticism — died Saturday, May 22, 2010, at age 95.

Born October 21, 1914, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Gardner grew up with a love for magic tricks, science, and puzzles. He obtained a degree from the University of Chicago — appropriately enough in philosophy, the study of knowledge. He seemed the very embodiment of knowledge, writing untold articles and over seventy books on magic, puzzles, codes and ciphers, mathematics, philosophy, literature, and myriad other topics, including, importantly, pseudoscience and the paranormal.

It is not too much to say that a Gardner book — originally published in 1952 and called In the Name of Science , then (1957) revised as Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science — was the seminal text for what became the worldwide skeptical movement. Gardner occasionally used the "Mathematical Games" column he wrote for Scientific American magazine (1956 – 1981) to critique some paranormal or pseudoscientific claim, then (1983 – 2002) became the leading columnist for Skeptical Inquirer , deftly skewering with his pen one after another crank, huckster, cultist, New Ager, or the like. His columns were gathered in a series of books, beginning with New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher (1988).

Famously shy, Gardner did not lecture or otherwise appear in public, and, as was noted in his entry in Wikipedia, he "declined many honors when he learned that a public appearance would be required if he accepted." Nevertheless, he did attend the first two Gathering for Gardner events organized by his admirers (In 1993 and 1996, and since held in even-numbered years). He also appeared at a CSICOP Executive Council meeting and mini-conference in Tampa Bay, Florida, in 1989, though he did not make a presentation. (See accompanying photo: me at left, Paul Kurtz center, Martin on the right.)

I will save my personal reminiscences of him for a special Martin Gardner tribute issue of the Skeptical Inquirer , September/October 2010. That issue will also contain his last column, sent in just ten days before his death. The issue will be a way of remembering one of the greatest figures in the history of skepticism.