Martin Gardner: Reviewer

When a man is so well known for writing about matters mathematical and otherwise, it is inevitable that he will be called upon to review the writings of others on these topics. Below, we survey his reviews in two major outlets.

The New York Review of Books


In "The Charms of Catastrophe" (New York Review of Books, 15 Jun 1978), Martin surveyed books on a then-hot topic—catastrophe theory—by René Thom and Christopher Zeeman. He even made the cover, in a sense.

Actually, Martin wrote for New York Review of Books frequently, going back to 1966. His contributions there ranged over mathematics, physics, education, dubious religious preachers, film, pseudoscience and much more. Below we draw particular attention to some of his mathematics and physics reviews.

In "Bang!" (New York Review of Books, 12 May 1977), Martin reviews The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe by Steven Weinberg. He begins by quoting the legendary ambivolence of Sherlock Holmes towards the basics of astronomy, adding:

"I would guess that most Europeans felt the same way during the great debates over the Copernican and Ptolemaic theories, and that even today most laymen have a similar indifference toward the debates over contemporary models of the universe. No branch of physical science is more remote from the practical. What does it matter to you and me whether spacetime is infinite, or finite and closed like the surface of a sphere?"

In "The Holes in Black Holes" (New York Review of Books, 29 Sep 1977), Martin ambitiously reviewed The Collapsing Universe: The Story of Black Holes by his friend Isaac Asimov, along with other other books on the topic. One of the reviewed authors responded indignantly, and Martin fired back.

In " Quantum Theory and Quack Theory" (New York Review of Books, 17 May 1979), Martin co-authored (with renowned physicist John Archibald Wheeler) a piece on the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the issue of "dignify[ing] parapsychology by giving its researchers an affiliate status in the association." Over the years, he wrote a lot for NYRB on bogus science and skepticism.

One of his better known reviews appeared as "Is Mathematics for Real?" (New York Review of Books, 13 Aug 1981), Martin The Mathematical Experience by Philip J. Davis & Reuben Hersh; which generated its share follow up (in NYRB and elsewhere).

In "Quiz Kids" (New York Review of Books, 15 Mar 1984), Martin reviews The Great Mental Calculators: The Psychology, Methods, and Lives of Calculating Prodigies, Past and Present by Steven B. Smith.

In "Physics: The End of the Road?" (New York Review of Books, 13 Jun 1985), Martin reviews at length Superforce: The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature by Paul Davies and Perfect Symmetry: The Search for the Beginning of Time by Heinz R. Pagels (two writers he admired). Buried in there is a curious analogy:

"My favorite model of symmetry breaking is an old stunt with playing cards. On a tablecloth, using great care and patience, it is possible to balance four cards on their long edges so they radiate out from a point like the arms of a cross. Gently push four more cards into the gaps to make a wheel with eight spokes. Add more cards one at a time. The more you add the more stable the structure should become until finally you have a wheel with fifty-two spokes. It is not easy to form. It helps if you give the deck a slight bend. You can anchor the outer ends of the first four cards with small objects such as checkers or chessmen, and later remove them. The trick is prettier if you place the cards so they all face around the circle in the same direction."

"Big bang your fist on the table. The jar will break the symmetry, collapsing the structure into a lovely rosette that is either right- or left-handed. Many physicists believe that an event similar to this explains why the universe we know is made of matter. Originally the cosmos was symmetrical with respect to matter and antimatter (matter made of anti-particles). When the symmetry broke, the universe collapsed into matter, but it could just as easily have gone the other way.

In "WAP, SAP, PAP, & FAP" (New York Review of Books, 8 May 1986), Martin reviews Barrow & Tipler's The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, opening with the words:

"It has been observed that cosmologists are often wrong but seldom uncertain, and the authors of this long, fascinating, exasperating book are no exceptions."
(Tipler responded to the review at great length, in the same organ of truth, to which Martin added a pithy, "I’m speechless"!)

In "The Ultimate Turtle" (New York Review of Books, 16 Jun 1988), Martin reviews Hawking's A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes in great detail, along the way commenting:

"There is a curious mistake in Hawking’s discussion of Newton’s cosmology. We are told that Newton believed in absolute time but not in absolute space, and for this was sharply criticized by Bishop Berkeley. It was the other way around."
It's unknown how Hawking took this!

The New Criterion

Among Martin's reviews for The New Criterion include these:

"Looking backward at Edward Bellamy's utopia" (Sep 2000), about Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000–1887.

"Larger than proof" (Dec 2000), a review of Gödel: A Life of Logic, by John L. Casti & Werner DePauli.

"Theory of everything" (Oct 2004), a review of The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, by Roger Penrose.

"Hotel Infinity" (Oct 2005), on Leonard M. Wapner's The Pea & the Sun.

"Naughts & crescents" (Mar 2006), on The Flying Inn, G. K. Chesterton's least successful novel.

"M is for messy" (Apr 2007), on Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next and Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law.

"Sir Isaac's ocean" (Apr 2008), on Newton by Peter Ackroyd.

"The price we pay" (Nov 2008), on God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer by Bart D. Ehrman. "Still four" (Dec 2009), a review of Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World by Mariana Cook.

"Abstract adventuring" (Jun 2010), a review of Duel at Dawn: Heroes, Martyrs, and the Rise of Modern Mathematics by Amir Alexander.

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