Food for Thought: Savory Treats for the Mind From the Julia Child of Mathematics and Rationality

What Julia Child did for French cooking at home, and recreational cooking in general, a man called Martin Gardner did for recreational mathematics, and rational thinking in general.
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It's not that common to become a revered national figure for over four decades in a field in which you had no formal training, having not started till you were essentially middle-aged. And then to influence a generation (or two) of enthusiasts to the extent that many ended up pursuing your field professionally, gratefully acknowledging your essential influence and role as a long-distance mentor.

Or to make it okay to love something previously associated (by many people) with difficulty and drudgery, and leave behind a rich and enduring written legacy on the topic, from which many people continue to derive inspiration, transforming your passion into theirs in the process.

And it's rarer still to achieve all that while remaining a down-to-earth person with no airs and graces, who was open to approaches by complete strangers, often generously sharing your time and expertise with young people in whom you saw promise.

That's exactly what Julia Child (1912-2004) did, making America fall in love with French food and cookery in the depths of the Cold War era, despite her lack of official chef credentials. She left us almost 20 ever-popular books, and her name is still synonymous with good no-nonsense (largely French) cooking made accessible to ordinary people. Last August, Google marked what would have been her 100th birthday with a special doodle.

But Julia was not the only one of her generation to pull off all of this: What she did for French cooking at home, and recreational cooking in general, a man called Martin Gardner (1914-2010) did for recreational mathematics, and rational thinking in general.

Both achieved their highest profile in the 1960s and 1970s, she on TV, he in the pages of Scientific American, and both were prolific and much-read writers throughout the second halves of their lives. Martin's 100th is still two years away, and there are many who hope that Google will honor him on Oct 21, 2014, in the same way they honored Julia this year.

Nobody has to wait another two years to honor the legacy and interests of Martin Gardner: they are championed every October, on and around his birthday, in Celebrations of Mind held all over the globe. These are aimed at curious people of all ages, and intended to provide an opportunity to celebrate the things he made so many people think about for many decades: recreational math, puzzles, optical illusions, rationality, scepticism, and much more. Anyone is welcome to attend or host one. They range from informal small gatherings of puzzle or magic enthusiasts of any age, to organized activities for school children to presentations at libraries or colleges and universities.

This year's Celebrations kicked off on Oct 1 with a four-minute clip on YouTube from freelance doodling diva Vi Hart (who also works for Khan Academy) inspired by Martin Gardner. It got over a million views within 36 hours. Clearly, some of the things the legendary American man of letters and numbers (and patterns and shapes) was enthusiastic about still speak to young people today. That video is about Hexaflexagons, a topic Martin first brought to the public's attention, way back in 1956; its subject matter is one of the focuses of this year's Celebrations of Mind.

Even if you've never heard of Martin Gardner, you're probably familiar with many of the topics he introduced into American intellectual life, via 300 monthly columns in Scientific American and the scores of books he published since the 1950s. The fantastic art of M. C. Escher, the beauty of fractals, RSA cryptography, and a method for determining the day of the week for any given date, are just some of the things he helped to popularize. He loved logical puzzles (how do you ask for directions on an island of half liars?) and optical illusions, and he had a deep understanding of physics, philosophy and religion as well as elementary but thought-provoking mathematics.

His numerous non-mathematical books include The Ambidextrous Universe, The Night Is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995 and his best seller (at half a million copies so far), the Annotated Alice in Wonderland. He was particularly proud of his first volume from 60 years ago, which is available today as Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Coincidentally, the last article he published in his lifetime was "Oprah Winfrey: Bright (but Gullible) Billionaire" for Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine he helped to found decades earlier.

I never met Julia Child, but I had the good fortune of getting to know Martin Gardner in his last decade, and he was a gentle, gracious, unassuming low-key soul. The last time we spoke, I asked him what visitors he'd had recently (the answer usually included the like of Penn and Teller, or his lifelong pal the Amazing James Randi). He told me that Richard Dawkins had dropped by, and he was baffled as to why. "Isn't it obvious?" I asked in astonishment, "You're famous, and you both share a lot of interests." With characteristic modesty, he quietly assured me that he wasn't famous.

Maybe he wasn't as famous as some of his admirers thought he was. But he should have been. As ace statistician and card magician Persi Diaconis has remarked, Martin "turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children."

Through his extensive written legacy, he still has the power to turn hundreds of thousands of ordinary people into entertained explorers of seemingly simple ideas with deep consequences. Though he left us a few years ago, the Twitter account @WWMGT (for What Would Martin Gardner Tweet?) regularly issues 140-character messages linking to cool items he'd have enjoyed and wanted you to enjoy too.

Some readers may have had a Celebration of French Food party in and around last Aug 15, to honor Julia Child in a way that stimulated their palates. In the next few weeks, many people will enjoy Celebration of Mind events and stimulate their brains in honor Martin Gardner and the wonderful food for thought which he left us. Bon appetite!

"Card Colm" Mulcahy teaches mathematics at Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia. He's author of the upcoming book "Mathematical Card Tricks" (AK Peters) and is on Twitter at @CardColm.

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