Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner


Reviewed by Jill

‘What follows here is a rambling autobiography …’ (xxiii).  And indeed it is, but what a ramble!

If you only know Gardner from his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American, then Undiluted Hocus-Pocus  will surprise indeed.  Gardner portrays both the mathematical side of magic, and the magical side of Mathematics.  It is also a history of ideas, some odd-ball philosophies, and the people who enriched his life.  Many of these tried his patience.  Sometimes his writing will test yours, but once you settle in, it is a fascinating retrospective on a rich life.

Mathematics features of course, but not in a way most of us would recognise it.  Gardner has a knack of explaining very simply the applications of mathematical concepts in everyday life, and in art.  Origami could be viewed as an everyday example of applied Mathematics.  Salvador Dali, a fan of Gardner’s Mathematical Games column, incorporated mathematical concepts into many of his works, particularly his painting ‘Corpus hypercubus’.  The superellipse, a space-efficient shape, was incorporated into homewares by the Danes.  Gardner attributes his writing success to his ignorance, to having to struggle to understand what he wrote, and thus writing in a way that others could understand.

And of course magic and conjuring tricks.  Persi Diaconis’ foreword sets the scene with his reminiscences of Gardner at a magicians’ Saturday afternoon hangout (it was predominantly a male scene).  Gardner himself expands on the camaraderie of those days, as his early focus on magic and science led him into a career as a writer, thinker and observer.  He recalls the first trick he learnt, and gives the background, but not the secrets, to rope tricks and card games.  His family encouraged discussion.  The squirrel-hunter conundrum was one of these, and Gardner observes that it comes down to language and the definition of ‘rotation’.  Satisfyingly for this non-Mathematical reviewer, Gardner admits that his knowledge of Mathematics is limited.

Gardner’s interests were wide-ranging.  He explored philosophies and faiths, literature and ideas.  There was the Great Books movement (which he dismisses, at length, as a fad).  The Movement published a fifty-four volume set of books which were deemed ‘essential’ reading.  Then there were the Rappites who followed the eccentric beliefs of George Rapp.  One of these was a prohibition on sexual activity and children.  Unsurprisingly, their numbers dwindled.  He writes on the Urantia Movement and myriad other entities which have sunk without trace.

Gardner gathered together with some interesting people.  He became a member of a ‘semisecret stag club called the Trapdoor Spiders’ (147).  Its members were science-fictions writers who wanted to meet regularly away from their wives.  With a philosopher, a psychologist, a sociologist and a magician he founded an organisation that investigated and debunked pseudosciences.  They felt it was the duty of scientists to debunk bad science.  He would meet another friend to exchange information about ‘recreational physics’.

And he met some intriguing people.  One friend was an author of a book of jokes suitable for magicians.  Then there was Ultra Violet, introduced to him by Salvador Dali.  Ultra was possibly hoping Gardner might like to write her biography.  Dali’s wife did not seem to be impressed by Ultra, who fails to rate an entry in the otherwise detailed index!

His writing output is prodigious – magazine columns (twenty-five years of Mathematical Games), essays, and books.  Beyond Gardner’s works, the breadth and depth of magic is astounding.  In a way this is a personalised history of science writing.  Modestly, he says that the success of his Scientific American Mathematical Games column ‘was a direct result of my ignorance’ (136).

This is a book to dip into and savour.  It offers diversions.  Look into mathematical concepts in art, and Dali’s works.  Keep a dictionary or your Internet search screen handy for following up on flexagons and polyominoes.  It may appear at times to be a litany of isolated memories, scraps of poetry, trivia and seeming irrelevancies, but each one has its place.  His wife’s hobby leads us into the business of old iron doorstops, and handbooks on their collecting.  The personal aspects of his life, his family and his faith, appear throughout but are detailed only towards the end of his ‘disheveled [sic] memoirs’ (195).

Gardner’s is a style of writing not encountered often these days and it may irritate – the directions to look things up on the Internet, his comments that he no longer recalls a fact, telling the reader he has already mentioned a character, opinions which diverge from the topic of the moment.  He displays an unshakeable faith that we will follow up on the references to his writings. Please indulge a gentle man and a deep thinker with a prodigious memory.

His is a whimsical humour, quoting Alan Greenspan ‘… in one of his rare intelligible remarks’ (81).  Another anecdote ends with the fervent hope that his ‘… interview was never preserved’ (89).  His observations on ‘today’s mad art world’ (198) draw to a close with ‘no rhetoric is funnier than the rhetoric of art critics’ (199).

Undiluted Hocus-Pocus is a light, personal, and fond summary of Martin Gardner through his own myriad connections and memories.  He was curious about everything.  He investigated and thought.  Piet Hein was a friend of Gardner, and his poem is a fitting title for this story.

We glibly talk of nature’s laws

but do things have a natural cause?

Black earth turned into yellow crocus

is undiluted hocus-pocus


Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: the Autobiography of Martin Gardner


By Martin Gardner
Princeton University Press
ISBN: 9780691169699
AU$44.99; 233pp.

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