Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Full of wonders

Martin Gardner
Martin Gardner (1914-2010) was something of a Renaissance writer. He seemed able to write about anything, from Alice in Wonderland to string theory, like an authority. He wrote books by the dozens, including a passable novel called The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (made into a passable 1975 move), and articles by the hundreds.

Forty-seven of his essays, mostly magazine articles, book reviews and chapters from his books, were collected more than 20 years ago in The Night Is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995. That's nearly 60 years worth of material, which alone is amazing, never mind that these essays cover physical science, social science, pseudoscience, mathematics, the arts, philosophy (the field he studied in college) and religion. The title given to this collection is suggestive of its range. It comes from lines by Lord Dunsany:

     Man is a small thing,
     and the night is very large
     and full of wonders

The last essay in the book, "Surprise," returns to this idea, that the universe is very large and full of wonders. However much science discovers about the universe, there will always be one more surprise waiting around the next corner. This essay falls in the category of religion and speaks eloquently of his own religious beliefs. Elsewhere he calls himself a "philosophical theist." He pooh-poohs most religious belief as irrational and has no use for Christianity. Yet he quotes G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and other Christian writers as favorably as he quotes such atheists as Bertrand Russell. In the end it seems to be the wonders of the universe that convinces him there is a God. In another essay he writes, "I believe because it consoles me."

Most readers, lacking Gardner's broad interests and knowledge, will find some essays more interesting, not to say understandable, than others. Being the sort of person I am, I found more of interest in his essays about Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Lewis Carroll and William Shakespeare than in those about Robert Maynard Hutchins and Isaiah Berlin. Others will read it differently, but most intelligent readers will find something here to stimulate them, anger them, delight them or simply give them that sense of wonder.

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