Beyond the Fields We Know

June 9, 2010

By Scott McLemee

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 fourth of 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 Press published 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 teams.

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.”