Skip to main content

Undiluted Hocus-Pocus – Martin Gardner ***

I was delighted to see Martin Gardner’s autobiography, as he was a great science writer. I loved his mathematical columns (mostly encountered through collections like Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions) and his annotated versions of books by Lewis Carroll – and he wrote well on the matter of pseudoscience.
I ought to say straight away that the book was a bit of a disappointment. In part this is simply because Gardner had a very ordinary sort of life. I don’t say that disparagingly – it’s just like most of us. When you read a book about someone like Richard Feynman you have both the opportunity to read about his amazing work, and his remarkable life. Gardner’s work is its own tribute, while the life of a science writer is not all that exciting, certainly in this case.
The other problem I had is that a lot of what’s in the book doesn’t particularly resonate. There are long sections about subtle debates in obscure (and now mostly forgotten) versions of 20th century philosophy, plus the politics of the University of Chicago that is hard to get excited by. And there is also Gardner’s sense of humour, which seems to be very much of a different age. Whenever he recounts a ‘funny’ story, it’s a bit like looking at an old Punch cartoon – you can’t quite understand why it was considered humorous. This comes through strongly when Gardner spends several pages recounting the ‘hilarious’ exploits of a practical joker friend.
At one point we are told there are many examples of this practical joker at work, but Gardner is just picking out two, presumably the best. One of these involves writing to a paperclip manufacturer, complaining that the box of 100 clips only has 98 in it, and when he opened the box, it smelled funny. The punchline is that the manufacturer wrote back to say that numbers in the box varied, so it could be a couple under or over 100, and they didn’t know why it smelled funny. My, how we roared with laughter.
Attempts at humour aside, the book comes alive when Gardner talks about mathematical puzzles, magic and testing fraudulent pseudoscience – but it is a relatively small part of the content. Also of real interest is his honest explanation of why he was a deist, though no longer a Christian, and the entertainment he clearly got from winding up atheists who expected him to be one of them with his arguably irrational but very human arguments.
If, like me, you are are a Gardner fan, you will find material to interest you in here – but don’t expect it be a rip-roaring page turner of an autobiography. It is a gentle meander through a mostly unremarkable life story that produced some decidedly remarkable writing.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…