Gardner's question time

Toby Howard

This review first appeared in New Scientist, 30 November 1996.

The Night Is Large; Collected Essays 1938-1995 by Martin Gardner, St Martin's Press, $29.95, ISBN 0-312-14380-X.

FOR ANYONE WANTING their mind to be stretched, their wits simultaneously tickled, Martin Gardner has always been essential reading.

Just as Richard Feynman could move effortlessly from sketching nude go-go dancers to unravelling quantumelectrodynamics, so Gardner can float between topics with an intellectual authority that places him in the first division of modern thinkers.

In The Night is Large, Gardner has collected 47 of his essays from a career spanning seven decades, giving each piece a new introduction, and a postscript for updates or replies to critics. Whatever subject takes his fancy, it is Gardner's gift to be wildly knowledgable and entertaining about it. His work reveals a clarity and ease of style that most writers would kill for.

The scope of this new collection is huge. To give you a flavour, Gardner breezes through artificial languages, reviews the puzzles in Ulysses, discusses Heisenberg, quantum weirdness, superstrings and the Twin Paradox, pokes fun at economic theory, explains fractal music, analyses mathematical realism and proofs of God, and writes a highly negative review (originally published pseudonymously) of his own confessional work The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener.

Although normally restrained and courteous, sometimes Gardner boils over. If he is fired by one passion, it is that he hates anything bogus. He is expert at debunking pseudoscience and claims of the paranormal, and here he includes six essays demolishing quack therapies, fraudulent mediums, the crank ex-psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and his orgasmic orgone, Sigmund Freud's bizarre beliefs in numerology, and UFOs. It's inspired and inspiring stuff, the perfect antidote to millennium madness.

The Night Is Large will thrill Gardner enthusiasts, for whom much of the material here will probably be new. And for those who yet don't know Gardner, there could be no better introduction to a master polymath of our time.

Toby Howard teaches at the University of Manchester .