By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Martin Gardner, James Randi
Narration by: David Marantz
To the general public, Martin Gardner is not a household name. “Undiluted Hocus Pocus” is a brief biography of Gardner who is known by a wide variety of famous and obscure artists, mathematicians, magicians, puzzle makers, and scientists. Unless one subscribes to “Scientific American”, practices magic, or likes to make or solve puzzles, he/she will likely not have heard of Martin Gardner. He died in 2010 at the age of 95.
“Undiluted Hocus-Pocus” is not a great biography but it is an introduction to a fascinating man who grew up in Oklahoma, graduated from the University of Chicago (with a degree in Philosophy), entered the Navy as an enlisted man during WWII, and made a living as an author. He wrote magazine articles for children’s magazines in his early career. Later, Gardner surprisingly wrote about science, mathematics, magic, and puzzles. The surprise is because Gardner never formally studied mathematics or science.
Gardner is a lifelong fan of Lewis Carroll and G. K. Chesterton with a penchant for Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Gardner annotated editions of G. K. Chesterton’s works and is considered a leading authority on Lewis Carroll’s works. Gardner is also known as a great admirer of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. Gardner became the founding member of the “International Wizard of Oz Club”. He wrote a number of books. However, he became best known for his “Scientific American” articles about mathematics, puzzle making, magic, and junk science criticism.
“Undiluted Hocus-Pocus” is more a name-dropping walk through Gardner’s life than an insightful biography. Gardner is in his 90s when the book is published. One presumes James Randi, a retired stage magician who wrote the forward and epilogue, discussed its completion with Gardner. Some of the famous people who Gardner mentions are Salvador Dali, Carl Sagan, S. I. Hayakawa (a famous linguist), and Isaac Asimov.
A chapter by Gardner about modern art reveals a very skeptical view of Paul Klee’s geometric forms, Jackson Pollock’s dripped paint, and the astronomical prices ($151.2 Million paid for a Pollock painting in 2006) paid for abstract art.
Gardner is humble about his grasp of mathematics and acknowledges that much of what mathematicians try to explain to him is beyond his understanding. Gardner’s self-effacement is surprising considering the twenty plus years he writes for “Scientific American”. A part of Gardner’s life story is about exposing suspect religious movements like Scientology. Gardner also attacks the psychic charlatan, Uri Geller, as a false spoon-bender and seer.
Interestingly, Gardner believes in God as a matter of faith. Gardner is raised as a Methodist and his wife as a Jew, but neither appears to believe in either church or synagogue. Gardner believes in evolution and criticizes belief in Bible’ truth. Though not an adherent of Thomas Nagel’s atheism, Gardner believes the essence of humanness is consciousness; i.e. Nagel’s philosophical view of human life. Both Nagel and Gardner, according to Gardner’s biography, belong to what is called a mysterian philosophy which believes that the prime creator of life is, and will always be, beyond the comprehension of human consciousness. Gardner believes in “God” in the only way he and Nagel believe science and human consciousness allow; i.e. by a leap of faith.
If a listener has never heard of Martin Gardner, “Undiluted Hocus-Pocus” is a worthy introduction but more like a memoir than a biography.