Like Puzzles? You Can Thank Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner never studied mathematics, yet he had a knack for creating games that helped people learn — even if they weren't aware that they were learning. (Photo: Konrad Jacobs/Wikimedia Commons).

Did you grow up doing any kind of puzzles at home? I did — from 3-D reconfigurations (which drove me nuts) to peg-in-hole conundrums, to math stumpers to 1,000-piece images. Part of the reason why I — and millions of other kids and grownups around the globe — spent time doing puzzles of various kinds in the '60s, '70s and '80s probably has something to do with the influence of Martin Gardner.

Never heard of him? That's probably because he was one of the few human beings worthy of the title of polymath, meaning his knowledge spanned a lot of different topics. So while he was known in many circles during his lifetime, he wasn't movie-star famous. (The fact that he shied away from public speaking probably had something to do with it too.)

Gardener popularized puzzles in his Scientific American column, "Mathematical Games," which ran from 1956-1981; he wrote another monthly column debunking pseudoscience for Skeptical Inquirer magazine; and he also started a magazine on "recreational linguistics." Gardener is even credited with bringing Mandelbrot's fractals and the math behind Escher's paintings to a worldwide audience. (The hexaflexagon is one of Gardner's most famous puzzles, and you can hear him him explain it in the video below.) There's also the more than 100 books he wrote, including a perennially popular study of Lewis Carroll's work, "Annotated Alice" and others about math, poetry, magic, religion, physics and philosophy.

You would never know it, but despite all his puzzles, games and writing, Gardner never studied mathematics (in fact he was a poor calculus student) or journalism. He was a philosophy major who served four years in the Navy during World War II, dabbled in grad school but didn't complete it, and worked at a kid's magazine, Humpty Dumpty, where he printed his first puzzles for kids. He famously told Skeptical Inquirer magazine, "I just play all the time and am fortunate enough to get paid for it."

But that playing had a serious aim — he was looking to engage students and laypeople alike, to get them enthusiastic about learning new things and solving problems. He wrote, "Surely the best way to wake up a student is to present him with an intriguing mathematical game, puzzle, magic trick, joke, paradox, model, limerick, or any of a score of other things that dull teachers tend to avoid because they seem frivolous. The frivolity keeps the reader alert. The seriousness makes the play worthwhile."

Over time, he influenced and was influenced by some of the 20th century's brightest thinkers, including Arthur C. Clarke, a British science fiction writer; Isaac Asimov, author and biochemistry professor; astronomer Carl Sagan; graphic artis M.C. Escher; painter Salvador Dali; Douglas Hofstadter, professor of cognitive science; Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary biologist and science historian; Noam Chomsky, linquist and philosopher; poet W.H. Auden, and even magicians Penn & Teller, according to the BBC.

Want to try making one of Gardner's most famous puzzles, the flexagon? Check out the how-to video tribute video above, made on the day after Gardner died in 2010 at the age of 95.

With so many multi-hyphenate people in the world today, is someone like Martin Gardner — and his puzzles — still relevant?

Very much so, says philosopher Bob Crease, who wrote in Physics World, "Googling it is not the Gardner way. The Gardner way is to ignite your fascination so that you experience the pleasure of finding the answer yourself."

What a novel idea!