Martin Gardner died this past weekend at the age of 95. In the scheme of things, not the worst age to die. He had time to accomplish many of the things he wanted to in life. And oh, the things he accomplished!
When you’re a brainy misfit kid, say around thirteen years old, too smart by half for your own good but utterly unable to connect with kids your own age, life becomes a kind of purgatory. You may have friends, but in some ways you find yourself completely alone.
But then one day you pick up a copy of “Scientific American”, and happen upon Martin Gardner’s column on Mathematical Games. And suddenly you are not alone. Here is a man — an actual, honest to goodness grownup — who shares your loves, your passions, your belief that there is beauty in the very fabric of the universe.
I remember poring over his columns for hours at a time, studying the beautiful puzzles, working them out, letting one thought lead to another until my mind had built an entire cathedral of meaning.
Martin Gardner was not afraid to be a nerd, an uncool intellectual, a mathematical devotee. He reveled in mathematical beauty, not with the jaded and self-interested eye of a grownup, but with a kid’s perfect enthusiasm, a pure unadulterated hobbyist’s delight.
I saw him speak once, when I was a teenager. I was thrilled to see my idol standing before us in person, and he did not disappoint. He talked of puzzles, of strange mathematical paradoxes, of delightful creations conjured from pure thought. I saw then that Martin Gardner was a brilliant overgrown kid, excited and inspired — as I was — by the sheer joy of problem solving.
He is gone now in body, but will forever be with us in spirit. I realize, in this moment of this man’s death, knowing how many lives he has touched, and how many young minds he has kindled, that this is not an occasion for mourning, but rather a celebration of a life beautifully lived.