Readers of this blog — friends, family, acquaintances mostly — know how I bounce from cynical/topical commentary to odd, hopefully quirkily-entertaining features and then to my arcane articles on physical/mathematical topics.
I’ve found there’s no way to predict what topic will resonate with whom. This has led me to more-or-less follow my whims and see what happens. And that, I’ve decided, is okay!
With that, I’m starting a series of posts that are basically links in an adult brag bracelet. Scrapbook items from a seven-decade life. Things treasured only by me, but you get to take a peek.
Embarking on this at my age is what psychologists call life review — except I am not going to get into my shouldas and wouldas with you. Stanford professor William Damon agrees: “Rather than dwelling on past problems, looking forward with a life-fulfilling purpose requires looking backward in an open and receptive way.”*
In his book Wild Problems, recommended by fellow blogger-friend Enrique Guerra-Pujol, Stanford economist Russ Roberts (what, we all work for Stanford now?) states the obvious in a succinct way that is worth repeating:
Human beings care about more than the pleasures and pains of daily existence. We want purpose. We want meaning. We want to belong to something larger than ourselves. We aspire. We want to matter. These overarching sensations — the texture of our lives above and beyond what we call happiness or everyday pleasure — define who we are and how we see ourselves. These longings are at the heart of a life well-lived.
The scrapbook items I plan to share in my life review have the above-and-beyond texture that Roberts alludes to, namely, the quality of mattering, at least to me and quite often to someone or something else besides me.
Mattering is most likely what this blog has been about, all along. So here goes!
A Note from Martin Gardner
I am sure I have mentioned Martin Gardner to you, as he was one of the main influential forces in my intellectual life — and I’m hardly alone saying so. As cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter put it, Martin Gardner’s monthly Mathematical Games feature in Scientific American may have been “about ‘recreational math,’ which sounds frivolous, but in fact the column was about beauty and profundity in math and many other fields as well.”
Gardner’s column, which he wrote until 1986, was always the first thing I read when the magazine arrived, and was more likely than not to be re-read a second, third or nth time.
Having a fondness for numbers and games myself, I got it in my head one day in 1979 to devise a puzzle of sorts which I called the Heisenberg Box. I will spare you all the details, but it basically is a stack of n drawers with n marbles loaded at random into the drawers; the problem is to figure out how many marbles are in each drawer. The catch is, the act of opening a drawer to inspect the contents will (silently) cause one marble in that drawer to drop to the next lower level. The objective is to determine the original configuration of marbles in the fewest possible moves, without destroying information.
I did some exploratory work on the puzzle (true confession: I must have used our office computer for this, and maybe even some of my work time!) and sent a write-up on the problem to Gardner, c/o the magazine. I was impressed that (a) Gardner even took time to read what I had sent him, and (b) that he responded so favorably (see note attached).
Now, Gardner did not actually wind up mentioning me or my puzzle in his columns, but instead suggested that I submit my work to Journal of Recreational Mathematics (which is sadly now defunct). I did so and the journal accepted my article, as they did a few other submissions of mine later on. So I have Martin Gardner to thank, not only for spurring my curiosity and interest in puzzles, but for my becoming a published author of sorts.
In any event, I figured that I possessed something special in my personal, hand-typed and signed note from Martin Gardner, and so I have made sure to hang onto it all these years.
There is an annual conference/event, called Gathering for Gardner, which is convened by the mathematically-inclined friends, admirers and devotees of Gardner. I always wished I were talented enough to attend (potential attendees must be invited or self-nominated), but I just discovered that there are virtual events for the public, which I plan to check out.
So, this forward-and-backward-looking scrapbook page is dedicated to Martin Gardner, 1914-2010, a generous and gifted writer who was not himself a mathematician but whose wide-ranging and infectious interests inspired — safe to say — hundreds of thousands, including me.
* Such forward-oriented perspectives must have served Damon well — he learned, decades after the fact, that his father, declared missing in World War II, had not only lived on but had served as a diplomat and fathered three daughters by his second wife, a French ballerina. But that is Damon’s story to tell.