Martin Gardner's circle gathers in Norman

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While living at Norman's Rivermont community in his later years, acclaimed writer Martin Gardner regularly entertained accomplished visitors from the world of science and mathematics.

His neighbors didn't likely know the caliber of his guests who dropped by to check on the native Oklahoman who made recreational mathematics fun for the masses.

He wrote the mathematical games column for Scientific American magazine for 25 years and published more than 70 books on subjects as varied as philosophy, religion, magic, pseudoscience and "Alice in Wonderland."

Gardner's work is credited for launching the imaginations and careers of countless mathematicians and scientists worldwide.

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"A term often used to characterize his life was that he was a polymath, someone who had an extremely wide range of knowledge and interests," said Jim Gardner, son of Martin Gardner and a longtime Norman resident.

The retired OU professor helped organize a local celebration of his father's legacy along with OU Honors Dean Doug Gaffin and Zev Trachtenberg of the OU Philosophy Department. It will be Thursday at the Great Hall of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

Martin Gardner, who died in 2010 at age 95, belonged to a small group of thinkers called mysterians. Jim Gardner said his father was unassuming and not a directive person.

"He pretty much let me and my brother do what we wanted. But he did teach us the value of skepticism, to doubt certain things by not coming to any decision or judgment until you had an adequate amount of information."

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Martin Gardner's successful work life was as varied as his interests.

He was raised in Tulsa and attended public schools. He worked as an oil writer for a Tulsa newspaper, a social worker during the Depression in Chicago and was the editor of Humpty Dumpty magazine. His career as a freelance writer took off when comedian Red Skelton took note of some of Gardner's writings.

"If you were a recreational mathematician, magician, a literary critic or into philosophy, he was a rock star," Jim Gardner said. "If you were not into that genre, you had no idea who he was."

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The Gathering for Gardner foundation sponsors a biennial convention that draws more than 300 participants.

Mathematicians, scientists and philosophers come by invitation to the Atlanta meeting and are encouraged to participate by presenting a paper, a stage act or presentation.

This week's public event in Norman, sponsored by the OU Office of the Provost, the OU Honors College and the OU Departments of Mathematics and Philosophy, is titled "Martin Gardner's Legacy: One Oklahoman's Imprint on Math, Magic and Philosophy." It begins at 6:30 p.m. Thursday with a reception and viewing of selected Gardner works.

At 7 p.m., panelists include professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Spelman College and Stony Brook University.

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Jim Gardner, a board member of the foundation, said his dad never really embraced computers. His one nod to technology was an IBM electric typewriter.

"I gave him one of my old Apple computers and he had Internet access. He enjoyed Wikipedia."

He kept notes on index cards, something he began in junior high school in Tulsa.

Those will eventually be donated along with other papers to OU's History of Science collection. Plans are being made to digitize the notes and make them searchable.

"There's got to be 100,000 index cards in my garage," Jim Gardner said.