Best-selling author returns to Oklahoma, penning books at age 95 

He's a man who has stumped generations with the puzzles he has published and who has convinced millions that, yes, math can be fun.

At 95, Martin Gardner has an ageless wit and an immense and quirky knowledge.


Gardner, who celebrated his 95th birthday in October, is a hidden treasure in Norman who, even after writing more than 70 books, continues to write every day.

Gardner moved to Norman a few years ago to be near his son, James Gardner, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Oklahoma.

"It's good to be back in my home state," he said.

Few realize Gardner is an Oklahoman. When he had a signing last month for his newest book at Borders in Norman, he caught some of his biggest fans by surprise.

"They didn't know I lived here," Gardner said with a wry smile.

His new book, "When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish: And Other Speculations About This and That," sold out at Borders in less than an hour. When that book was gone, people bought out the other books he authored, clearing the store of everything Martin Gardner.

Gardner was born in Tulsa on Oct. 21, 1914, and graduated from high school there.

He took his first paid job at the Tulsa Tribune, a publication that no longer exists, during the Great Depression.

"Believe it or not, I was called the assistant oil editor," he said.

For $15 a week, his job was to visit oil companies and report how the wells were doing.

"I was bored," he said. "But every now and then, they would give me a feature job to do, and that was fun."

The job, which he held for about a year, kicked off his decades-long writing career. Gardner graduated from the University of Chicago in 1936 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy. He enlisted in the Navy when World War II began, serving as what he called a "lowly yeoman," and ending up on a destroyer in the North Atlantic.

After the war, he returned to Chicago. It was there that he made his first sale of something he had written: a fiction piece to Esquire magazine called "The Horse on the Escalator."

The story was about a man who loved to tell jokes, but his wife didn't think any of them were funny. The man was devastated when he found out his wife was pretending to laugh at them. But the "domestic tragedy" ended in reconciliation.

"Turned out she had a sense of humor, but it was different from his," Gardner said.

Gardner mastered the lighthearted. For years, he wrote a poem of moral advice for Humpty Dumpty's Magazine, a children's magazine.

On a whim, the ever-curious Gardner wrote a column that was picked up by the magazine Scientific American about hexaflexagons, the 3-D paper figures that can be moved to expose different sides, which often have something written under a flap.

"The piece was a big hit," he said. "Pretty soon, people in New York were all folding hexaflexagons."

The publisher offered him a full-time job in New York. Gardner, who had taken no math courses in high school, accepted, and ran out to buy every book about recreational math he could find.

His monthly column, "Mathematical Games," was his sole source of income for 25 years, he said. Each column had a play element, like a magic trick, a puzzle or a paradox.

Gardner almost single-handedly started a movement for recreational math, which, he insists, is not the oxymoron it sounds like.

"The market for recreational math hadn't been tapped," he said. "The column became popular among mathematicians who hardly knew recreational math existed. It's now a very popular topic among publishers."

Now revered by mathematicians around the world, Gardner says he got into math "almost by accident."

"Unfortunately, recreational math is a low-level math, so you don't have to know a lot of math to write it," he said. "As you follow the column, you notice it gets more sophisticated."

Gardner, who considers himself a "math journalist," eventually learned math up to calculus.

"You would have a hard time finding a mathematician who has not read anything by Martin Gardner," said Marilyn Breen, an OU math professor. "He is respected and admired throughout the mathematical community for his ability to find intriguing problems and to present them in an interesting and understandable way."

Boris Apanasov, an OU math professor who studied at the USSR Academy of Science, started reading Gardner's work in the 1970s in Russia where his books are extremely popular there.

"Martin Gardner influenced not just Oklahoma or the United States, but really the whole world's mathematical community," Apanasov said.

It was recreational math that led Gardner to magic, which, he says, is one of his hobbies and has led to several books and even columns for Magic Magazine. It has even led to him being coined a "mathemagician."

He still impresses his visitors with new card tricks and the optical illusions scattered throughout his room. But he will not divulge his secrets.

"Magic is a close circle of devotees who tell each other secrets," he said.

Much magic, he also said, ties directly to math.

When not writing, doing magic or solving puzzles " when he is bored, he says " Gardner turns to another hobby that hangs on his wall among an original M.C. Escher sketch and a photo of Albert Einstein: a musical saw.

Well, a regular saw, he said.

He plays the saw about every other day and has plied the instrument for about 10 years, playing such songs as "You Are My Sunshine."

Gardner continues to write every day on his electric typewriter.

He is currently working on an autobiography, which he said should be finished in a year or two.

"Whenever I think of something I leave out, I tinker with it," he said.

By tinkering, he means cutting and pasting " literally.

"His version of a word processor is a pair of scissors and rubber cement," his son James said. "As an academic myself, I just wish I could be as productive as he is."   "Hailey R. Branson

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