Beyond the Fields We Know
June 9, 2010

 By Scott McLemee <[log in to unmask]>

The most casual of polymaths -- and the most genial (yet precise) of
popularizers -- Martin Gardner wrote about science, philosophy, mathematics,
literature, magic, and much else besides. He died last month at the age of
95. It is hard to imagine anyone moving into the unique niche he carved out.
At the same time, otherwise widely informed people often prove never to have
heard of him. I find that even sadder to think now that he is gone.

Readers often discovered Gardner through the monthly column on recreational
mathematics he wrote for *Scientific American* between 1956 through 1981.
Numerous books were compiled from it, and they have given stimulation and
entertainment to generations of young math nerds. Two years ago, Cambridge
University Press began issuing its New Martin Gardner Mathematical Library,
with revised and updated versions of many of his pieces. The
its projected six volumes appeared this month.

Gardner only reprinted one of those columns in *The Night is Large:
Collected Essays, 1938-1995* (St. Martin's 1996) -- in my opinion, the best
book for making an acquaintance with the full range of his interests and
talents. There are pieces on theoretical physics, Shakespeare, artificial
intelligence, spiritualism, 20th century philosophy, and the language spoken
by the Klingons. Gardner published a number of volumes of miscellaneous
pieces, all of them enjoyable enough to read, but *Night* is the best place
to start.

Revisiting it a few days ago, I noticed something that escaped me on first
reading. Some of the essays originally appeared in *The American Journal of
Physics*, *The Journal of Philosophy*, and *Semiotica*, while others were
written for newspapers or popular magazines. Yet there is not much
difference between them. Proust once said that snobbery never changes its
tone even when it changes the subject. The same might be said of Gardner --
with exactly the opposite implication, of course. The tone is generous but
precise. He is out to make a point, not to make an impression.

Gardner had originally expected to become a physicist but ended up studying
philosophy with Bertrand Russell and Rudolph Carnap as an undergraduate at
the University of Chicago during the 1940s. He edited one of Carnap's books
on the philosophy of science and cited him often in his own work. But the
sheer range of his interests makes Gardner's work seem closer to that of
Russell's popular writings. They also share certain qualities in their prose
- a blend of clarity, familiarity, and humor.

Russell points out in one of his essays that crackpots are an inescapable
fact of intellectual life, so you might as well figure out how to derive
some entertainment from them. I do not know if Gardner was directly inspired
by that insight, but *Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science* -- his
first book, published in 1952 -- is one of the most diverting volumes I
know. New forms of pseudoscience keep springing up, but I suspect *Fads and
Fallacies* will remain in print for a long time to come.

*It was where* I first learned of -- among other things -- the amazing
career and even more amazing discoveries of the great Alfred W. Lawson, who
was for many years a minor-league baseball player before turning his
attention to the aviation industry, in which he became one of the pioneering
entrepreneurs. He had some plausible claim to have invented the first
airliner, capable of seating 16 people.

During the Great Depression, Lawson came up with a system of financial
reform designed to bring lasting prosperity to his country and the world.
Thousands of Americans joined the movement he founded. Gardner located one
book from 1941 containing "several hundred photographs of mass meetings,
parades, lecture halls, office fronts, bands, and groups of [Lawsonite]
officers wearing a special white uniform and cap, and a diagonal sash."

Economics was not his only area of expertise. Lawson also formulated
theories about physics and biology, which I must forebear trying to describe
in any detail. (Evidently there is no such thing as "energy." Let's just
leave it at that.) His tireless efforts yielded a comprehensive system of
human knowledge called, of course, Lawsonomy.

"In 1942," wrote Gardner in *Fads and Fallacies*, "Lawson purchased the
University of Des Moines. The school, which included fourteen acres, six
buildings, and dormitories for about four hundred students, had been closed
since 1929. It is now called the Des Moines University of Lawsonomy... Only
Lawson's own writings are used as texts, and they must be read by a student
before he is able to attend. A basketball rule book was once banned because
Lawson hadn't written it. Accredited teachers of Lawsonomy are called
'Knowledgians,' and the top-level Knowledgians are Generals. Lawson is
supreme head and First Knowledgian."

Lawson lived for a couple of years after *Fads and Fallacies* appeared. The
Des Moines University of Lawsonomy, which had a peak enrollment of about one
hundred students, closed its doors in 1954. It was eventually replaced by a
shopping mall. (Another belief system Gardner described in his book,
Dianetics, has enjoyed somewhat greater success.)

In 1991, the University of Iowa
*Zig-Zag and Swirl: Alfred W. Lawson's Quest for Greatness*, by Lyell D.
Henry, Jr., a professor emeritus of political science at Mount Mercy
College. Its jacket bears an endorsement from Martin Gardner, who called it
"one of the most amusing biographies of the last few decades."

From it you learn that advanced study in Lawsonomy was expected, by its
founder, to take about 30 years. It required a narrowness of focus, and a
strictness of recall unimaginable, in today's anything-for-a-quick-thrill
academe. For one thing, the student had to memorize the great man's
writings. And there were quite a few of them. That is why you don't run into
many really qualified Knowledgians these days. And yet it seems, from
YouTube <>, that there are a few
Lawsonians still around. They have a university in Wisconsin. In 2002,
enough of its alumni were on hand during a
reunion<>to form baseball

Last year, the University of Iowa Press brought out a paperback
edition of *Zig-Zag
and Swirl*. Aside from being the definitive and perhaps final word on the
subject, it seems like the most Martin Gardner-esque book ever written by
anyone other than Martin Gardner. I got in touch with Lyell Henry to ask for
his thoughts about the late author.

"I've been a big fan of Martin Gardner's writing," he responded, "since
1952, the year in which Gardner's *In the Name of Science* was first
published (in 1957, the title was changed to *Fads and Fallacies in the Name
of Science*). I had just graduated from high school and by chance found the
book in the city library of my home town of Ames, Iowa. Captivated by the
sheer zaniness of Gardner's material, I was especially delighted to find
there a whole chapter on Alfred Lawson and his so-called University of
Lawsonomy, the strange institution that I had seen on numerous trips to Des
Moines and that had always intrigued and mystified me."

Henry says he kept up with Gardner's books and columns over the years. A
rereading of the 1952 volume reignited his interest in Lawsonomy. He plunged
into research and wrote a book of his own. When the publisher sent his
manuscript to Gardner for comment, Henry says he was "greatly relieved to
learn that he liked it."

He considers himself in Gardner's debt, not just for the inspiration and
endorsement he provided, "but, above all else, for providing a superb model
of excellent writing that joined logical analysis, clear explication of a
wide range of abstruse scientific matters, and, not least, much good humor.
This last ingredient -- good humor -- is especially important and one of
Gardner's great strengths. For the past forty years, I have had hanging on
the wall of my study a quotation by H.L. Mencken, another writer who knew
something about the uses of humor in writing: 'One horselaugh is worth ten
thousand syllogisms.' I was delighted and gratified to learn not long ago
that this was also one of Gardner's favorite epigrams."