Monday, June 7, 2010

Celebrate Martin Gardner (1914-2010)

Martin Gardner described his relationship to poetry as that of "occasional versifier" -- he is the author, for example, of:

     π goes on and on
     And e is just as cursed
     I wonder, how does π begin
     When its digits are reversed?

But Martin Gardner also played with words--and with numbers. The first connected him with poets, the latter with mathematicians.

After a long life "inside his head" Martin Gardner died last month in Norman, Oklahoma.  Born in 1914 in Tulsa, he grew up amid chess, magic tricks, science, mechanical puzzles and L. Frank Baum's Oz series--and majored in philosophy at the University of Chicago (g 1936).  In 1956, he wrote a freelance article for Scientific American about hexaflexagons, strips of paper that mathematicians folded into complex shapes. Impressed, the publisher offered him a job as a monthly columnist on mathematics. and he wrote a “Mathematical Games” column for the magazine from 1956-1981.  In a 1999 NY Times book review of his The Annotated Alice, critic Adam Gopnik noted :   "Gardner’s own mind, compellingly split between a first-class skeptical intelligence (no one has written more witheringly about pseudoscience) and a heartfelt love of the fantastic and irrational.  . . . "

Gardner's columns (now all available on a single CD) treated both poetry and mathematics with playfulness.  Serious play.  Play that develops a mind as pick-up soccer may develop a body.  Here are samples:
In Gardner's Mathematical Circus we find this palindrome poem by British writer J. A. Lindon:
     As I was passing near the jail
     I met a man, but hurried by.
     His face was ghastly, grimly pale.
     He had a gun.  I wondered why
     He had.  A gun?  I wondered . . . why,
     His face was ghastly!  Grimly pale,
     I met a man, but hurried by,
     As I was passing near the jail.
While many of us are familiar with palindromic numbers (such as 15851) or sentences (such as "Madam, I'm Adam")  in which the list of symbols is the same if read forward or backward, Lindon's poem involves the order of the lines. (In both cases, different punctuation is allowed.)
In another sort of example, we have "accidental verse"  -- Gardner's term for what is also called "found poetry" -- that is, words included in a prose passage which, if separated from the passage, form a poem.  In Fractal Music, Hypercards, and More . . . , Gardner mentions this British example from An Elementary Treatise on Mechanics by William Whewell (1819).  
       And hence no force, however great,
          Can stretch a cord, however fine,
          Into a horizontal line
     That shall be absolutely straight.
Brian Agran, a reader of Scientific American, found this accidental quattrain in a paragraph from Gardner's article "Pi and Poetry: Some Accidental Patterns" :  
     Some accidental patterns
     Involving the numbers pi and e,
     And then some whimsical instances of
     Accidental poetry. 

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