The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   25

The Night Is Large

Collected Essays, 1938--1995

by Martin Gardner

New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1996

The Philosophe from Tulsa

Imagine that we are living on an intricately patterned carpet. It may or may not extend to infinity in all directions. Some parts of the pattern appear to be random, like an abstract expressionist painting; other parts are rigidly geometrical. A portion of the carpet may seem totally irregular, but when the same portion is viewed in a larger context, it becomes part of a subtle symmetry.

The task of describing this pattern is made difficult by the fact that the carpet is protected by a thick plastic sheet with a translucence that varies from place to place. In certain places we can see through the sheet and perceive the pattern; in others the sheet is opaque. The plastic sheet also varies in hardness. Here and there we can scrape it down so that the pattern is more clearly visible. In other places the sheet resists all efforts to make it less opaque. Light passing through the sheet is often refracted in bizarre ways, so that as more of the sheet is removed the pattern is radically transformed. Everywhere there is a mysterious mixing of order and disorder. Faint lattices with beautiful symmetries appear to cover the entire rug, but how far they extend is anyone's guess. No one knows how thick the plastic sheet is. At no place has anyone scraped deep enough to reach the carpet's surface, if there is one.
--- Martin Gardner, as quoted by Arthur Winfree, The Geometry of Biological Time, p. xiv

Martin Gardner is a philosophe --- which is not the same thing as a philosopher. The pattern is familiar: a strong religious upbringing (Tulsa filling in for the Jesuit colleges and Jansenist families which gave us Voltaire and Diderot) collides with the larger world of learning (the University of Chicago, home to the Great Books, and more importantly the austere Logical Positivism of Rudolf Carnap, whose Introduction to the Philosophy of Science Gardner edited). The faith gets crushed, but its concern with literal, factual, trip-over-it-in-the-dark truth becomes, if anything, stronger, as does a devotion to science and mathematics, the ways to approach most nearly that veiled figure.

But a philosophe is only rarely a scientist, mathematician or systematic philosopher, and Gardner is not. A philosophe is a writer, and Gardner is an excellent one, especially in his favored form, the expository essay. Gardner is at his best explaining, unravelling, above all exploding. He is one of the supreme debunkers, and (as is necessary for the role, and typical of a philosophe) very, very funny, though not a satirist like Swift or Lucian. There are puzzles enough in the world --- his title is from the beautiful lines of Dunsany, ``Man is a small thing, and the night is very large, and full of wonders'' --- without inventing bad ones; it is no surprise that he has no patience with deceit, even self-deceit, and is an amateur magician. (There is perhaps something of the prophet denouncing the priests of the Baalim in all this, too.)

It is, indeed, for puzzling and unmasking that he is best known, for his ``Mathematical Recreations'' in Scientific American, and for debunking pseudoscientists and psychics. (This extends, naturally enough, to voodoo economics, demonstrated by the wonderful essay on supply-side economics and the Laffer curve, included in this volume.) Most of his other interests fit this constellation --- science fiction and detection; annotation, especially of course Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; philosophical essays on mathematics; defenses of the correspondence theory of truth and attacks on cultural relativism; demolitions of putative proofs of the existence of God and a commitment to fideism. Others are admirably miscellaneous and disjunct, like his cult of Oz. Like other philosophes, he cannot be accused of profundity --- what Peter Medawar called ``tuba-notes from the depths of the Rhine'' are wholly absent; unlike some of them, he isn't shallow, either, and actually cares about philosophical puzzles, finding them deeply perplexing.

In a better-ordered republic, or at any rate a better-ordered republic of letters, such a writer would be (in the words of the dust-jacket blurb) ``at the heart of American intellectual culture.'' In ours, of course, he is not (does this make St. Martin's guilty of false advertising?), and in fact The Night is Large is the first of his essay collections in at least ten years to find a mainstream publisher. It is a special shame, therefore, that The Night Is Large is not Gardner's collected essays, but rather a sampler or reader, a selection from six decades of essays, reviews and books, plus auctorial introductions and post-scripts. The principles of selection are curious --- chapters from Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, The Ambidextrous Universe, The Relativity Explosion and Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener make it in --- but why those, especially since the first three books are still in print? Why a (tolerably amusing) demolition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but not the justly celebrated column on Conway's Game of Life? Selections can always be argued over; there can be no doubt, however, that the production is a disgrace, with obvious typographical errors littering the pages in the most annoying way (e.g., a 1950 essay on relativism, for instance, is pushed back to 1930, when Gardner was 16 and pious), and these are uncorrected in later printings.

Given these sins of omission and commission, I think The Night Is Large, like most one-author anthologies, is best suited to those who have never read the writer before: in this case, they're in for enough of a treat that the mistakes will pass them by. Meanwhile, Gardner's essays await a true collected edition, put out by a publisher who knows the meaning of the word ``proof-reading.''

xix + 586 pp., index, some black and white illustrations
Debunking / Philosophy / Popular Science
Currently in print as a hardback, US$29.95, ISBN 031214380X, and a paperback, US$17.95, ISBN 0312169493; LoC P3557 A714 A6 1996.
4 June / 9 November 1997